As Museum Development Officers, significance assessments of community collections are a regular and important part of our work. Responding to a request for an assessment and funded by the Community Heritage Grants programme administered by the National Library of Australia, I recently had the opportunity to undertake an assessment of the Lord Howe Island Museum collection.
The collection at the museum is diverse, and represents the island’s history from its discovery only a few weeks after the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson, through its days as a provisioning stop for the American whaling fleet, to an idyllic holiday destination and hotspot of biodiversity. The museum documents these events through objects as well as an exceptionally rich collection of photographs, books, and other archival material. But one particular sub-collection struck both a personal and professional chord with me.
Sailing to Lord Howe Island has always presented mariners with a challenge. Surrounded by the notorious Tasman Sea and with the nearest land 600kms away there is nowhere to hide from bad weather. But with an increasing interest in cruising sailing from the 1920s, recreational yachtsmen began setting course for more distant shores. Tourism on Lord Howe Island was also becoming an important industry at the time, with Burns Philp running a small passenger service alongside cargo on their Sydney – Lord Howe Island – Norfolk Island supply run. Assured of an ocean adventure with an hospitable reception on arrival, Lord Howe became an alluring goal for recreational yachtsmen.
Visiting yachts would often present their island hosts with a commemorative photograph of their vessel, and a number of these are held in the museum’s collection. A frequent visitor during the 1930s was the yacht Wanderer. Built in 1928 and owned by Norman Wallis, Wanderer undertook her first voyage to the island within a few months of her launch. The museum collection includes an original scrapbook of the Wanderer, which documents her racing and cruising career through to Norman Wallis’ death in 1965.
Of particular relevance to the Island’s history is the Wanderer’s participation in the search for the missing motor launch Viking. The Viking was a newly built vessel owned by island resident Gower Wilson. At the beginning of November 1936 she left Port Macquarie bound for Lord Howe Island with Gower Wilson, his son Jack and a crew of four Sydneysiders on board. When the Viking failed to arrive at her destination after ten days the alarm was raised, and Norman Wallis lost no time in setting out on Wanderer to assist in the search. Wallis and Gower Wilson had become firm friends during the former’s island visits. During the search Wanderer herself nearly became a victim of the sea, and limped back to Sydney with a broken rudder after 15 days searching. No trace of the Viking or her crew were ever found. Gower Wilson had been a regular host for many visiting yachts so his loss was keenly felt not only by the tiny population on the island, but also by the wider yachting community.
The museum’s collection documents more modern yachting history as well, with the local postmistress Hazel Payten maintaining a register of visiting yachts from the late 1960s into the 1980s. For those with an eye for yachting history a number of well-known skippers and vessels can be spotted, but perhaps most notable amongst these is the tiny 12ft sloop Acrohc Australis with skipper Serge Testa. Acrohc Australis stopped at the Island in 1987 during her voyage around the world, which had commenced in 1983. Serge and his homemade vessel still hold the record for the smallest sailboat ever to complete a circumnavigation of the world. Acrohc Australis now has a home at the Queensland Museum.
I decided to follow the Pomona lead suggested by the museum staff with a quick search on Trove. The name “Hodge” and “Pomona” limited to the decade in question turned up quite a number of results. Through the newspaper articles I discovered Mr Hodge and (presumably) his wife occupying a range of positions on community organisations, hosting family members visiting the region (through the personal notes column), and even winning a manicure set at a Pomona School of Arts Ladies committee presentation.
Although it wasn’t long before I found Mr Hodge mentioned in the context of the Freemasons, I decided to take a break from the visual monotony of the slightly pixelated black and white script to rest my eyes. Mr Hodge was indeed a member of the Cooroora lodge at Pomona around the period. Was there anything else relevant to be known?
Fortunately, I had previously conducted a significance assessment of a museum collection in Pomona and knew that they had a collection that related to the Cooroora Lodge. Looking back through my files, I could see that the museum holdings contained Masonic honour boards, regalia, iconography, framed photographs and even tessellated pavement. But there were no such chairs in their collection. As I examined my photographs, a name and date on an honour board for the Master Masons of the lodge caught my eye: the same name as on the chair’s plate, and a date one year later!
As it turns out, Brother Hodge elevated to the position of Master Mason within the lodge in the next year. It seems that he would then occupy the very chair that he had recently presented. At this point the connections between the chair, Hodge, and the Pomona Lodge were becoming apparent.
A picture of the chair in the lodge room would be ideal to make a definite connection, but how likely would it be that an image of the interior of the Masonic Centre featuring the chair? While I wasn’t entirely hopeful, the Masonic Centre was closed and sold comparatively recently in 2005, so the existence of such a useful photograph was a possibility.
An internet search delivered proof of the chair’s location and use…
The lodge was photographed in 1999 by Roger Todd, a Sunshine Coast architect with an interest in local heritage architecture. Among his images were two that show the lodge room and its furnishings- including the chair in question!
You might be wondering about the images on the wall behind the chair. Well, there is more to this story. The (former) Cooroora Masonic Centre building is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register. The register reveals that one of the significant features of the building is a series of painted murals that wrap around the four walls inside the main lodge room. The paintings feature a number of noteworthy historical temples and structures, presumably also containing features of Masonic symbolism. The scale and execution of the murals, complete with a breathtaking sense of perspective, creates an illusion of being able to step into a classical world. However the scenes depicted are not entirely new: they were copied from photographs of a similar mural that decorated the Masonic Temple in the Criterion Restaurant in London. The original London murals were destroyed when the building was bombed in World War 2.
The artist was a Pomona storekeeper and Freemason who began working on the mural in 1925, handmixing the colours and painting into the evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp for almost a decade. The series of murals was finished around 1934.
The artist’s name- you guessed it- was William Hodge!
When we began looking at this chair, there was very little known about it. But with the results of this type of research we can begin to understand its history, connections and significance at a regional or possibly even state level. I’m still investigating this item and can sense that there is yet more to know, so the mystery remains as to how this chair ended up in the current location.
It’s not case closed yet!
I’d like to acknowledge the input and expertise provided by members of Lodge Maroochy 168, the United Grand Lodge of Queensland, Masonic Memorial Centre Archives, Roger Todd Architect, Noosa Museum, and the Yandina Pioneer Cottage. Thank you all.
As you may have read in Melanie’s significance post , a key component of a significance assessment is understanding the provenance of individual items, or the collection as a whole. But what happens when there isn’t as much documentation as you might like? How can you understand what you are looking at, where it comes from, what it means, assign a degree of significance, or make use of it in any way other than telling the most generic, commonplace histories? The simple truth is that you can’t, and you are going to need to find out more! In this blog I’d like to share a particular experience in object research that took an item from barely being understood to… well.. let’s just say something more than that!
I came across this chair while undertaking a significance assessment recently. It’s a well-crafted timber chair, stately perhaps, but not overly elaborate or ornate. The height, accentuated by its pointed top and acorn shaped finials, gives this chair a real sense of presence in the room compared with other more regular seats. It seems that while it can fulfil its purpose as a place to sit, there is more to it than just that. The object label simply reads “Masonic Chair”.
None of the museum records available to me could provide any elaboration about this particular chair. By the rationale and logic of the Museum’s collection policy, it may have come from the local Freemasons lodge. But a staff member mentioned that they thought it may have come from a Masonic Temple in Pomona (a nearby town in another local government area). All very interesting, but what was its history and how did it get to be in this collection?
First things first, I had to make sure that the chair was indeed Masonic. Other benevolent societies that are sometimes confused with Freemasons (such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, or the Manchester Unity Independent order of Oddfellows) operated throughout Queensland. While I was confident that it was Masonic, some quick background research confirmed that the design of the chair and its motifs are common to furniture associated with Freemasonry. Since I was in the area at the time, I was able to arrange a meeting with some local Freemasons who were able to shed some light on their organisation’s local history, some basic information about the types of furniture you might come across in a lodge, organisational hierarchy, and some of their donations of objects to the museum over the years. They identified the chair as being used by the Master Masons of a lodge, and pointed out that there were other similar- though slightly different- chairs that were also used during their private rituals. While we identified that the collection held other undocumented Masonic items gifted to the museum, no one was sure if this chair in particular came from the local lodge.
During our examinations, we turned our attention to the small engraved presentation plate at the head of the chair that listed the name of the person who presented it, their title, a date, some flourishes and a hallmark. The name and date on the plate didn’t match any listed on their local lodge honor boards, but the name seemed familiar.
Who was Bro. W. Hodge, who did he present this chair to, and why?
To be continued…
It’s probably no secret that typewriters in museum collections generally aren’t my favourite kind of object. There are a few reasons for that, all based on principles of good museological practice. Let me explain…
As I travel the regions I come across many typewriters. They seem to be breeding in collection stores and back sheds. At first there is one and then another. And then another couple that turn up after that. Before you know it they have taken over, like the seagulls in Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”. If sparrows or starlings are considered to be the rats of the sky, I wonder what this make the venerable museum typewriter?
A proliferance of typewriters in regional museums isn’t necessarily a reason not to include them in a collection. The problem is that many of the typewriters I come across in collections have little or no known provenance. We don’t know who donated them, if they are associated with any particular event, who used them, or even where they came from. As far as being able to use them to illustrate important or interesting local stories, often they aren’t great examples.
Aside from that, they are big and heavy. Even the “compact” versions are more than capable of wrenching a shoulder or breaking a toe should you decide to tangle with them. In terms of both storage and display, they occupy a significant amount of real estate that could be dedicated to more significant objects. If you have any more than two or three typewriters that you know nothing about, and are concerned about your storage space not having room left for the town survey plans or Mayoral chains, I’m sure you know what I would be putting up high on the deacessioning priority list.
There does seem to be a couple of standard justifications that I hear for having a glut of mystery typewriters in the collection. One is that there are plans afoot to develop a display on the development of typewriters through the ages, from past to present. However, few of the museums with such aspirations consider themselves museums of technology. They are museums that aim to tell the stories of their particular community, not a worldwide perspective on technological advances. Such stories are really out of the context and scope of the museum.
Another reason I hear is that children really enjoy using (read: playing with) them. The “a-ha” factor, where the child draws a connection between the typewriter and the computer, or an understanding the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard layout* is often cited as being justification for their inclusion. I’m sure that there are children who make the connection and are enlightened by those facts, but I’m not quite convinced that these are the best lessons we have to offer.
We have been seduced by their quaint branding and maker’s marks, often with those nostalgic golden cursive scripts transferred onto a black wrinkle paint finish. Their open construction and visible mechanisms capture our imagination, and test our cognitive ability to predict what will happen inside when we press the button marked with the letter “a”. They are a far cry from our sleek, ergonomically designed smartphones or tablet computers, and we seem to love them for it. Perhaps a little more than is healthy. Secretly I think there are more than a few others who think these intricate machines might look delightful parted out and turned into artworks, kitsch ornaments or steampunk jewellery. In either case, we seem to find it hard to let them go.
Now, before you lynch me for crucifying this poor, defenceless, much maligned device I need to state that it is possible for me to appreciate the typewriter in a museum context. In fact, it has been one of fantastic typewriter that prompted me to write this blog.
Recently I enjoyed a visit to the Dayboro Historical Society, and came across this little green beauty. It is an “Oliver” brand- possibly a model 3- that was manufactured in the USA between the 1890’s to late 1920’s. In this particular configuration, the u-shaped type bars that impress the letters onto paper swing down from above, rather than from the front of the machine to back. It’s certainly not like your average Remington.
But it isn’t just the unusual “down strike” format, the age, or the fact that it wasn’t black with pretty writing that I find this particular typewriter interesting and valuable. It was because it was used by David Edgar Evans, a local resident and newspaper correspondent, during the 1930s’. I’m told that Evans would type up his regional reports on this machine before forwarding it through to the Courier Mail for publishing. Unlike a multitude of unprovenanced typewriters sitting on shelves in our museums, its importance doesn’t necessarily lie in it’s ranking in the evolution of the printed word. The significance of this particular item lies in the way that it illustrates how the Dayboro community stayed connected with the rest of Queensland, and the importance of the region in Queensland daily life. It speaks of the means and importance of communication within our state. Through the documents it helped produce, many years on we know about the issues and events of the time that Queenslanders of the time valued and found important.
This particular typewriter would have played a large part in the recording of many incidents, both great and small: social gatherings, sporting events, births, deaths and marriages. One Dayboro local recalled that “you could barely sneeze around here without it being written up in the paper”. This is one of many typewriters that would have been used to document the very articles that today we use in our research. The Dayboro Historical Society certainly understand the most important aspect of the history of this object.
So perhaps it’s not actually the typewriter that turns my gaze glassy when I encounter them. Maybe I just need to hear more about the unique stories and reasons our communities value them. Do you have a typewriter in your collection with a unique local story? I’d love to hear all about it!
*The QWERTY layout is said to have been designed in order to slow typists words per minute down count down enough so that the machine didn’t jam
What goes around comes around, as they say… And Cairns Museum has been delighted by the recent request to loan its collection of hats made by the Cairns Country Women’s Association for use in a RetroVintage Fashion show at Merrylands Hall in Atherton on August 19th. Cairns Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, has noticed a growing interest in retro fashion and feels museums with fashion collections are well placed to appeal to younger audiences interested in fashion. Local resident, Di Singh, who is helping the CWA in Atherton put together the show, agrees and has noticed an increased interest in millinery as well. Whilst visiting the museum to view the collection, Di shared her memories of how the hats were created during the 1980s. Her stories have greatly enhanced the museums understanding of the hats’ provenance and significance, and breathed new life into their potential for display and interpretation.
During a recent training workshop at Menmuny Museum, QM curator Trish Barnard and I found one of their treasured items – an embroidered cloth. The embroidered cloth depicts stories from Yarrabah families and residents. Each piece has been hand stitched and combined to create a kind of ‘memory cloth’ or quilt (though it has no backing). It is a powerful and evocative object, one with the capacity to explore stories about place, mission life, belonging and families. As part of the project we are working on with Menmuny Museum, we hope to work with staff to find out more about the item, and to ensure it is preserved for future generations.
Recently I visited Blackall and Tambo to help the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council and the Tambo Heritage Group identify future directions for two key heritage collections. First stop was RamPark in Blackall. This is a Read the rest of this entry