The early hours of Saturday July 18th will mark the first anniversary of the fire which claimed the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. It has been a long hard road for the volunteers of the Winton District Historical Society so it is timely to reflect on the enormous amount they have achieved since the devastating impact of the fire. Previous blogs have detailed the remarkable results achieved by conservators on a number of significant objects (Winton Fire response – Waltzing Matilda Centre, Winton Fire Response – the next phase of recovery, Phoenix objects from Winton, The conservation of a fire damaged print), but the work hasn’t stopped there.
Since March 21st the volunteers have opened those areas of the complex unaffected by the fire on a daily basis, and have welcomed over 1800 visitors. Although displays in the main Waltzing Matilda Centre were impacted by the fire, there’s still plenty for visitors to see in the museum complex with a fascinating range of cultural and natural history objects from the region on display. Visitors can also see objects salvaged from the fire and the ongoing work of volunteers in conserving them.
The Waltzing Matilda Story, which previously formed part of the Billabong Show in the Centre, was saved from the fire and can be viewed in the Sarah Riley Theatre, which has also played host to a variety of community activities since the fire, including Waltzing Matilda Day, a famil tour and smoko for interstate journalists, and a free talk on overshots in Western Queensland by historian Sandi Robb.
In amongst all this activity, the volunteers have continued to work steadily through the objects still requiring attention. Locals and visitors have also donated their time and expertise in the ongoing cleaning process, and the Winton Creative Arts Group have achieved stunning results with some of the collection, reading room, and storage furniture, with 11 large items and 12 chairs restored.
With all these achievements it’s easy for outsiders to forget the physical and emotional toll a disaster such as this takes on those who face loss and damage of their treasured collections. But the images below demonstrate just what a huge accomplishment the successes of the past year have been. The Winton District Historical Society are collaborating with Council, architects and the curatorial team on plans for the new Waltzing Matilda Centre, incorporating the museum precinct, and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
Follow the new Centre’s progress at Waltzing Matilda Centre
This blog will outline the conservation treatment I carried out on a print that was damaged in the fire last June at the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. The print was on loan to the Winton and District Historical Society for their ANZAC exhibition “More than a name” when the fire struck. The print suffered water damage, weakening of the paper support and isolated areas of charring.
The print is a duplicate of the iconic oil painting “Menin Gate at Midnight” painted in 1927 by Australian artist William Longstaff. The painting depicts the shadowy ghosts of fallen soldiers marching past the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium. The image gained iconic status in Australia as the nation mourned the thousands lost in World War One.
The treatment process took approximately 4 days to complete and involved the following steps:
Step 1: Surface cleaned front of the print
- The surface of the print was cleaned using a soft brush and air compression avoiding the charred areas.
Step 2: Consolidating the charred areas – part 1:
- The weak charred areas on the front of the print (see right) were consolidated with a thin Japanese Tissue (Bib Tengujo) and wheat starch paste to prevent any loss of the damaged paper. The tissue was then carefully toned using pastel pencils to reduce the visible impact of the charred areas.
Step 3: Removal of the window mats:
- The window mat was mechanically removed.
- Under the mat board was a thick layer of adhesive tape residue which had to be removed from the surface of the print (see image below right). As the paper support was very porous, it was necessary to use methyl cellulose poultices to soften the adhesive as direct applications of water would have caused staining of the paper.
Step 4: Backing board removal:
- Once the window mat was removed the acidic and charred backing boards, which the print had been directly adhered to, were removed.
- The first layer of mat board was very thick strawboard which had swollen significantly on exposure to water (see image above right). Most mat boards are a composite of a number of layers of paper glued together which can be carefully removed layer by layer. Straw board is made by compressing straw pulp in one thick layer. If the board gets wet, the pulp forms dense clumps of fibres which make removal very difficult and time consuming. The removal of the board had to be carried out without water and took more than two days.
- Under the strawboard was another thinner mat board layer that was also removed. The bulk of the mat board layers were removed dry. Fortunately the second backing board was layered in structure making removal much easier than the strawboard layer.
Step 5: Consolidation of charred areas – part 2:
- The charred areas of the print were consolidated on the back of the print using Lens Tissue and wheat starch paste.
- Areas where the paper was weak but not charred were also consolidated.
Step 6: Reduction of water staining:
- The water solubility of the printing inks was tested and found to be stable so the print was blotter washed in deionised water to reduce the heavy staining. Blotter washing uses capillary action to gently remove any soluble staining and discolouration without the need to apply water directly to the paper surface. The treatment was successful and reduced the staining making it much less visibly intrusive to the image.
Step 7: Cleaning the brass plaque:
- The brass plaque was cleaned by firstly brushing off any loose dirt and then very gently cleaned with a jewellers’cleaning cloth. This did not change the appearance of the plaque but further treatment was not carried out to prevent damaging the surface.
Step 6: Rematting and reframing:
- A new window mat package was created matching the original mat configuration including the brass plaque. Canson 100% cotton cellulose mat board was used for the mat and backing board.
- The print was then placed in its original cleaned frame. New glazing and an archival quality backing board were used to seal the frame package.
After the enormous effort by volunteers from the Winton and District Historical Society and Queensland Museum staff Ewen McPhee and Sue Valis to recover objects from the fire damaged Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, the next stage of the recovery process could begin. Ewen and Sue returned to Winton with MDOs from across the state, Melanie Piddocke, Josh Tarrant, Lydia Egunnike and Jo Wills, to assist museum volunteers with the next step in cleaning and conserving objects retrieved from the fire. During the week we were also joined by Deborah Bailey, Director of Operations & Communities for Queensland Museum, who lent an extra pair of helping hands.
Despite extensive damage to the main building at the Waltzing Matilda Centre, a significant number of objects were retrieved for cleaning and conservation. As other parts of the facility containing the remainder of the museum’s collections were untouched by the fire, this provided excellent working spaces for the cleaning process. The excellent documentation, organisation, and knowledge of the collection by the volunteers further added to the efficiency of prioritising and locating items to be cleaned.
Most of the items recovered had suffered surface damage from soot, while some paper based materials had suffered water damage in the fire fighting process. Under the watchful eyes of our conservators Sue and Lydia, we all learned special techniques for dealing with the unique challenges of object recovery post fire. Against the continual hum of generators and vacuum cleaners, the cleaning process was started. After a solid week of cleaning, significant inroads had been made on many of the objects, and the area reserved for clean objects began to fill up. It was time for the MDOs to say a regretful farewell to all the volunteers at Winton, who have not only worked incredibly hard since the fire but had also been wonderful hosts to the MDOs throughout the week. But, with a long road still ahead of them in recovering and rebuilding their museum, the MDOs and Queensland Museum will continue to support them in this important process.
Following the fire late last week at the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, MDO Ewen McPhee and object conservator Sue Valis from Museum of Tropical Queensland are traveling to Winton today to assist museum volunteers with an initial assessment of the site. Ewen and Sue will spend the next few days providing support for staff and volunteers at the Centre as they begin the recovery process, and in consultation with them will begin to formulate a longer term plan of how this support can be continued into the future. Further updates regarding the MDO team response to this event will be posted here.
As the new kid on the MDO block, I have recently had the privilege to travel to the western areas of Central Queensland to meet groups caring for cultural heritage in the west. In a trip that covered Nebo, Clermont, Emerald, Springsure, Barcaldine, Muttaburra, Winton, Longreach, Ilfracombe and Isisford, I encountered everything from dinosaurs to diggers, as well as meeting the dedicated volunteers caring for these collections in the often hot and harsh outback.
A new type of object for me was a 1976 prize winning rich boiled fruit cake, preserved in its own purpose built glass dome and proudly on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum. It was originally intended that the cake would last about five years under its dome, but thirty eight years on the cake is still going strong, although the temptation to sample its rich fruity goodness isn’t hard to fight.
Possibly most famous for its role in the 1891 shearer’s strike which ultimately led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, Barcaldine has a rich agricultural and social history which is evident in the architecture and monuments about the town. Much of this history is eloquently told and on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum. Aside from the fruit cake above and a wealth of social history items linked to the town, the museum also has an interesting collection of WWI material, including this pair of French airman’s goggles.
Also a central location in the 1891 shearer’s strike but now more famous for a major fossil find in the area in 1963, Muttaburra is a small town with a big history. When grazier Doug Langdon stumbled across some unusual looking rocks on his property, it led to the first recorded specimen of one of Australia’s prehistoric giants – Muttaburrasaurus langdoni – named for his discoverer. Affectionately known as ‘Mutt’ or ‘Dino’, the dinosaur is recreated in the park in the middle of town, and each year fossil enthusiasts visit the area in the hope of making the next big find. Muttaburra has more on offer than dinosaurs however, with the A.A. Cassimatis Store and Cottage and the Dr Arratta Hospital Museum capturing a snapshot of life in Muttaburra in a more prosperous time. The range of goods on display at the Cassimatis Store helps to reinforce how essential these general stores were to remote communities, stocking everything from farm and stock supplies to boiled lollies and over the counter medicines.
Dinosaurs were still on the menu in Winton, with a visit to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. With a dedicated team of staff and volunteers constantly chipping away at fossil deposits, what’s on offer at the AAOD is continually evolving (unlike the dinosaurs themselves!). But as with Muttaburra, there’s so much more to Winton than dinosaurs. The heritage listed Corfield and Fitzmaurice Store not only has displays ranging from shearing to, yes, dinosaurs, but also offers a rare opportunity to see the virtually unaltered interior of an early 20th century general store, complete with manager’s office, clerk’s cubicle, and flying fox or cash railway for dispensing change.
Another rare survivor in Winton is the Chinese market garden and store of Willie Mar. The garden, which had provided Winton with fresh fruit and vegetables since the 1920s when Willie’s father commenced operations, only ceased to produce commercially in 2000 when floods impacted heavily on the aging Willie and his garden. Willie himself passed away in 2007, and many residents of Winton have vivid memories and engaging stories of Willie and his garden. Although the fruit and vegetables are gone, Willie’s shop and house remain at the site, as well as evidence of the ingenious pond watering system common to Chinese gardens. The Chinese skills and traditions of farming small patches of land with a continual crop yield became an essential part of community health and survival in many outback towns and the excellently interpreted Willie Mar site is a tangible reminder of this now extinct tradition. The progress on this site will be exciting to watch as the Friends of Willie Mar continue to interpret and share the site. A special thanks to the Friends of Willie Mar group and the volunteers at the Qantilda Museum for taking the time to share with us their wonderful collections.
In this first year of the First World War centenary commemorations, it’s hard for the MDOs not to notice World War One collections as they work with Queensland’s regional museums and communities.
As we write grants and work on a variety of projects, we’re all keenly aware of the importance of these collections and artefacts. Rolls of honour, signature cloths, letters home, knitted socks, soldiers portraits and glass negatives, Dead Man’s pennies, war trophies, equipment guild artefacts and war souvenirs: these are just some of the items that are preserved by volunteers in regional Queensland’s community museums. They are special and significant. They demonstrate the impact of the war on communities, families and individuals.
In a recent trip in north west Queensland, Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills came across an extraordinary array of First World War collections and materials. Like other communities across the state, there are some powerful stories from the First World War period that illustrate just how people and townships in north west Queensland were affected by the war – both on the front line and at home.
Of particular interest were the signature cloths in Croydon and Cloncurry. Community members paid to have their signatures embroidered onto the cloths as part of patriotic fund raising activities. Some of these were later auctioned off to raise further funds for the war effort. There are a number of these signature cloths in other collections around Australia. One in Alison Homestead in Wyong Shire Council NSW recently survived a fire. Another made by the Neerim South Red Cross Society is held by Museum Victoria. It would be interesting to know which other communities in Queensland hold these cloths in their museums and collections.
Other objects strongly represented in collections include honour rolls and memorial boards. Irvinebank, Croydon and Winton have decorative items that commemorate citizen’s involvement and sacrifice. During their travels out west, Jo and Ewen met up with Central Queensland MDO, Dr Melanie Piddocke, in Winton and found a number of interesting items at the Qantilda Museum at the Waltzing Matilda Centre.
A rare and evocative First World War object is held by Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers. Ewen has previously posted an entry about the pair of half knitted socks and an associated letter that the museum holds. His research into this subject has uncovered related items in other museums, such as the “Grey Sock Booklet’ that was printed by the Soldiers’ Sock Fund to provide instruction for knitting socks. A copy is held in the Powerhouse Museum Collection.
Another interesting item can be found at Loudoun House Museum in Irvinebank. Volunteers Tony, Peter and Ellen showed MDOs a trench mortar presented to the community as a war trophy. Numerous communities were presented with trophies captured from German troops on the front line.
Thanks to all of the volunteers, museums and council officers in Charters Towers, Hughenden, Winton, Cloncurry, Mount Isa, Burketown, Normanton, Croydon and Irvinebank for making us welcome and sharing information about your heritage and collections.