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More projects from the far north

MDO life in FNQ has again been busy over the last three months. I’ve travelled what feels like 1000s of kilometres and been privileged to see north Queensland’s diverse landscapes and intriguing cultural history.  Great, too, has been the opportunity to work closely for the first time with communities in Burketown, Babinda and Millaa Millaa, and reconnect with colleagues and friends in Cairns’ museums and Torres Strait. Here are just a few details of projects I have been lucky enough to work on recently:

The Wild Irish Girl Display, Cooktown History Centre

I’ve always been impressed at the self sufficiency of the volunteers at the Cooktown History Centre. So when they asked me to help out with cataloguing training for the John Hay/Sam Elliot collection, which was donated to them just before John died, I was only too pleased to assist. As we worked our way through we discovered a fabulous collection of material from the Palmer River Goldfields. Handmade tools, Chinese pots, gold scales and opium pipes… these are just a few of the items that tell the story of the Wild Irish Girl Mine, a unique place in FNQ’s mining and social history. Follow this Wild Irish Girl Mine link for more information.

We also discussed displaying the material in the available space and how the group might set up the new area. Six months later, I received pictures of the new display. After purchasing some new cases and developing panels using their in-house style, the group have produced a fabulous display that mirrors and succeeds their intentions. Congratulations to a very dedicated group of people.

Burketown Visitor Centre CHG project

At the end of May, Ewen McPhee and I drove out to Burketown on the Albert River in far northwest Queensland to help out the local Shire Council and the Carpentaria Land Council with their collection as part of a CHG grant. Designed to help understand the collection and make it more accessible, the grant enabled us to spend a week with the group and help redevelop their displays and get them ready for opening. Along the way we got to spend time getting to know the community in more depth, learn about the Aboriginal and settler history, and become acquainted with the cultural artefacts and paintings that make up their collection. We made sure to enjoy the surrounding landscape and evening skies as well.

Cairns’ Museums Textile Training with Dr Michael Marendy

Museum volunteers in Cairns attended a week long textile preservation workshop in June, thanks to funding from Cairns Regional Council. Run with great care and passion by Dr Michael Marendy, participants were treated to his wealth of knowledge, attention to detail and ready humour as he ran applied training sessions. I was amazed at the sewing skills out there among the community, and painfully aware of my own needlework limitations! But Michael’s enthusiasm is infectious and, by the end of the week, I could see how beneficial site visits Mulgrave Settler Museum and CADCAI had been, and how inspiring it is to have access to a material specialist. Michael also delivered a delightful public lecture, leaving guests crying out for more stories from his experiences with textile treasures. The groups in Cairns are now working towards developing a small textile exhibition in Cairns Museum’s temporary gallery.

Gab Titui Cultural Centre: Butal Inu Ngapa Boey and the 2018 Art Awards

Ewen and I travelled up to Thursday Island in July to help the team at Gab Titui install two new exhibitions. The 2018 art awards were opened on Thursday 26 of July and we were honoured to work with a vast array of wonderful pieces. The new cultural exhibition, Butal Inu Ngapa Boey translates as ‘our luggers’ and examines the familial connections to the Torres Strait’s pearling history. Ewen has been advising on this project for the past year. Important to this project was the video recordings with different island representatives. The display also included commissioned artworks that celebrated the region’s pearling traditions and history. As usual, an exhibition opening at Gab Titui is accompanied by extraordinary dancing, this time from the Badu Island Dancers who performed lugger dances.

The Kjellberg Story: Millaa Millaa Museum’s first temporary exhibition

Last, but by no means least, Eacham Historical Society’s Millaa Millaa Museum developed and opened a new temporary exhibition to commemorate 100 years of noted Swedish migrant Ernst Kjellberg’s arrival in the district. Initially, Kjellberg worked closely with Mamu men to clear their land, and run a dairy farm. Then, between 1930 and the 1945 he and his family ran a health clinic on their property Beachview on the outskirts of Millaa Millaa. As knowledge of his abilities grew, people flocked to his clinic and lived in tents while they received holistic and manipulative therapy.

The production of this exhibition was no mean feat for this group of volunteers who live in this small town on the Atherton Tablelands. At least two of them are over 90 and many have been experiencing health complications. Nonetheless they were keen to participate and were gently guided by new volunteer curator, Stacee Hillyard who did a fantastic job. I was very fortunate to be able to enjoy their support and goodwill as I came in and made changes, and believe the process was as important as the outcome. Community enthusiasm for this story was strong, and became increasingly evident as we worked toward the opening. We had people offering to lend small collections of material. Volunteers partially reassembled the electric light bath for the display – perhaps one of the most unusual items I’ve come across for a while.

The exhibition was officially opened on July 28th by Councillor Anthony Ball. For a small town, it was a big event. Am amazing morning tea was provided by the CWA, and more than 50 people took part in what was the museums first temporary exhibition. Among the guests I even happened to meet a man who had worked with the light bath we had on display! Congratulations to the Millaa Millaa Museum group for their hard work and enthusiasm.

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“Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”- MDOs working with Gab Titui

Apart from the disaster recovery work in Winton, the MDOs have been working on numerous other projects.  One of these, “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”,  has been with staff from Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island.

At the end of last year, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled up to Torres Strait to train and work with the staff to develop a new exhibition for their cultural maintenance gallery. The theme was chosen to recognise the cultural significance of masks in Torres Strait culture, their influence on contemporary art forms, and to revive the art form itself.

The special challenge for this project was the procurement of objects – so many of these items are held in international institutions and other Australian museums. To address this, the exhibition concept was planned around a contemporary arts component which involved commissioning local artists to create masks for the exhibition.

After undertaking applied training with the MDOs, Gab Titui staff got down to the task of researching and curating the exhibition. Working with renowned artist Alick Tipoti as co-curator, Leitha Assan and Aven Noah developed the overall look and feel for the exhibition and prepared all exhibition text and content. They identified eight different artists, based on islands where masks were traditionally made, to design masks for the exhibition: Andrew Passi, Eddie Nona, Vincent Babia, Kapua Gutchen Snr, Alick Tipoti, Torrens Gizu and Yessie Mosby.

Jo and Ewen returned to Gab Titui to help install the exhibition. Cultural protocols dictate the way masks can be handled – only men are able to touch the masks. For installation, this meant Ewen worked with Aven and Kailu to hang the masks, while Jo worked with Leitha and Elsie to hang panels, create object mounts for other items, line the cases and prepare the labels.

The end result is stunning, and a testament to their hard work. The masks are extraordinary and powerful objects in their own right, and together represent a significant body of work. The black lined cases create a sense of mystery and dark magic to echo the spirituality of the objects. The labels tell the artists stories, while the text panels provide an insight into the background of the mask in TI culture.

“Evolution” opened in conjunction with the 2015 Gab Titui Arts Awards and will be on display for a year. Jo traveled back to Thursday Island to attend the opening, see the final exhibition, and was lucky enough to see performances by the Aibai Sagulau Buai Dance Team from Badu Island.

Thank you to George Serras from the National Museum of Australia for allowing me to use some images from the opening in this post.

Torres Strait views