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‘Dressed to Impress’: Cairns’ museums collaborate to showcase fabulous frocks from the far north

What do you get when you bring together a wedding gown, a ‘fashions on the field’ racing dress, a kaftan, a Chinese silk skirt panel, a debutante gown and a fancy dress costume on International Women’s Day? A window into the lives and creativity of local women from the far north, and a chance to explore their stories!

Following on from the textile training run by Dr Michael Marendy in Cairns last year, museums in the Cairns region have recently celebrated the opening of ‘Dressed to Impress’ at Cairns Museum,  a collaborative exhibition that explored the wearers and makers of  some of the region’s textile treasures. This is the first time the groups have worked in this way and, if the level of participation and the attendance at the opening are anything to go by, it won’t be the last!

Each organisation was asked to choose one garment for inclusion in the show, to undertake research into the history and provenance, and to consider how they want it to be displayed.  Volunteers have contributed considerable time and work to prepare the displays. By combining their own sewing skills with the training from the workshops, they have adapted petticoats to fit the fuller dresses, made textile mounts, designed a full length slip to go under the wedding dress, padded mannequins and created supports for hats. 

Mulgrave Settler’s Museum shortlisted two pieces – and each was so strong we ended up including both. Volunteers contacted both dress donors and arranged for me to meet with them in Gordonvale so that we could find out more.  Owner of the wedding dress, Marlene Moss reminisced about her mother-in-law, renowned local seamstress, Kath Moss. We perused the photographic album that was part of the collection and looked at Kath’s notebooks that held the measurements of women from across the region.

Marlene Moss on her wedding day; one of Kath Moss’ measurement notebooks; the dress on display after hours of preparation.

Carol Lavelle, former owner and wearer of the Cairns Post costume, took the dress to the nursing home to show her mother who had made it in 1956.  Although her mother’s memory is fading, seeing the dress briefly stirred some recognition, a treasured moment for Carol and her family. For me, this illustrates the power of objects and the important role museums can play in reminiscence programs and community well being.  

Carol Lavelle: in the newspaper dress in 1956; with her mum, Callie at the nursing home (Image: Jenny Verrall); at the exhibition opening (Image: Travis Teske).

Babinda contributed a dress worn by Joan Dickson, winner of the inaugural harvest queen competition in 1963. Behind this fairy tale dress, lies the story of a woman who grew up on a cane farm, trained to be a school teacher in Brisbane, made her own clothes and whose knowledge of the sugar industry was critical to her being selected the winner of the competition. Joan was part of a contingent of 14 from Babinda who traveled up to the opening by bus, turning heads when she entered with 2018 Harvest Queen, Demi Bettini.

Harvest Queen Dress installation transformation: backroom preparations (Image: Suzanne Gibson); being installed by volunteers Glenys and Jenni; two Harvest Queens at the opening – Demi Bettini (2018) and Joan Dickson (1962) (Image: Travis Teske).

 

The contribution from CADCAI, via member, Jenni Campbell, showcased a different era of clothing, and a vastly different style. Jenni’s family had kept a chest of garments belonging to her grandmother who moved to Cairns in 1906. The clothing inside is made from exquisite and ornate textiles, most likely imported from China and sewn here. The fragility of the items caused us to be cautious about which pieces to display. Jenni worked meticulously to craft her story and then attach the fabric to the textile support, a technique that Michael Marendy had demonstrated during the workshop.

The kaftan that Celeste Augur donated to Cairns Museum added a pop of colour and vibrancy to the display.  She bought it off the rack from a local retailer and wore it to a Fun in the Sun party during the 1970s. Free flowing and light, it is an example of the changing fashion ‘loosening up’ – rather essential during Cairns’ warmer months!

Cairns designer, Grace Lillian Lee, also loaned a piece for the show, providing a contemporary example of tropical inspired textile ingenuity. Her Great Barrier Reef dress mixed hand printed textiles with metal spikes suggestive of the crown of thorns, and was paired with a woven coral hat that drew on traditional Torres Strait weaving techniques. Grace’s work is now recognised nationally, and she is now working on projects that seek to create opportunities to develop indigenous voices in the textile and fashion industries.

 

 

 

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Scenic Rim Story Skills

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpetation and labels share the important stories. “[you need to read what is on the cassette]” image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpretation and labels share the important stories. Image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

In this age one of the challenges many community museums face is attracting new visitors. A wide range of activities such as sports, theme parks, shopping or community service all compete for potential visitors’ time and attention. Compounding this effect, people’s understanding of our collections and their meaning is diminishing. The items which were once commonplace in everyday life are now seen by many as unknown “things”, with little relevance to their understanding of the world.
And to be fair to the visitor, sometimes we don’t do the best job of helping them to understand what they are seeing and why (we think) it matters. Sometimes we simply leave them alone with these unknown, uninterpreted objects to try to make sense of what it all means. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when it becomes all too hard and they don’t bother to visit. With this situation at hand, the need to produce quality exhibitions with engaging stories to make sense of our collections has never been more important.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

With these challenges in mind, volunteers from Scenic Rim museums gathered recently at Rathdowney for an exhibition development and label production workshop. During the day, the groups explored the topics of exhibition components, concept development, structuring narrative, writing, and production methods. The afternoon saw a practical session, focusing on making simple yet professional foam core labels using a number of different techniques. After an enthusiastic afternoon brandishing Stanley knives, steel rulers and spray adhesive, the participants were well equipped with the background knowledge and skills needed to produce their own exhibition panels in-house. I can’t wait to see how they will use these skills to tell the fascinating stories from their region!

The Workshop was funded by the Scenic Rim Regional Council and Arts Queensland RADF Fund. The Regional Arts Development Fund is a Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and Scenic Rim Regional Council partnership to support local arts and culture. If you would like to host a similar workshop for your museum, please contact the Museum Development Officer for your region.

Heritage North – bringing local museum communities together

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Heritage North is an association of museums and historical societies from north and far north Queensland that meets quarterly to discuss issues affecting the region. When the organisation meets, members have the opportunity to share ideas and stories about the region’s history and their museum collections.

Members work closely with the MDOs from north and far north Queensland. Last Saturday, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee ran a workshop for Heritage North members at the Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Representatives from Cairns Museum, CADCAI, El Arish Museum, Innisfail Historical Society, Loudoun House Museum, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Mareeba Historical Society, Eacham Historical Society and Mulgrave Settlers Museum bought along objects from their collections to work on as part of the workshop.

Objects ranged from a walking cane, bricks, stone decorative items from CADCAI’s temple collection, to medals, a surveyor’s instrument, a branding iron and archival and photographic material. Ewen and Jo provided the group with curatorial advice regarding display planning and implementation. The focus of discussions was on object choice and stories, the value of labels, different display techniques and conservation suggestions.

Jo’s Diary

Menmuny Museum, Yarrabah

Visited Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah to familiarise myself with the collection and facilities. They have some wonderful material in the collection, and some very significant records. I will be working with Trish Barnard, Senior Curator Indigenous Studies, Queensland Museum, who will deliver collection management training over three days. I am also going to help Michael Marzik set up their digitisation station and run digitisation training.