Sometimes I fall head over heels in love with the objects and collections I work with in far north Queensland. I remember them. I seek them out on site visits to make sure they are still there. I undertake research on them in my spare time, and try to understand their value and why they might be special to others.
So what triggers this attachment? At a recent workshop with the Tableland Heritage Network in Atherton I I returned to museum basics and linked provenance and research to a love of objects. We talked about what inspires us to learn more about particular objects and how this helps us to create engaging interpretation. We discussed the art of looking at objects and how this builds our understanding and commitment to them, and then listened to people talk about some of the items they had brought in to discuss.
I also decided to examine what triggers my own emotional engagement with particular items and found a number of recurring key themes. It’s not just the collections I work with that I admire, it’s those I encounter as a museum visitor myself as well.
Blood ties and birthplace: identity
Where you’re from, who you’re related to, who your mob are. For some, family and place trigger an immediate sense of connection. I was born in a small town called Poole in SW England, a seaside town with a strong tradition of ceramics. I found this 1930s ceramic tile panel depicting Poole High Street and Quay while visiting Poole Museum. I was mesmerized by it. The picture illustrates the high street and waterfront that formed part of my childhood, and shows the area where my family worked as fishermen and ran a local pub. The ceramic tiles were made at Carters Tiles, which went on to become a well known local business called Poole Pottery. You might have seen their tiles lining the walls of the London Underground.
Emotional reaction: compassion
Some objects leave a lasting impression on us. Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah has an embroidered cloth that was made during the 1930s by residents of the girls dormitory at Yarrabah Mission. Individual hand stitched pieces have been combined to create a kind of ‘memory cloth’ or quilt. The panels illustrate the impact of mission life and removals, of government policies and their impact on families.
For me, this object represents a learning point in my career – it is an item that I have thought about many times and which moves me profoundly. Who made it, how and when? Where did they come from and how did they get to be at Yarrabah? When were the pieces joined together and what sort of lives did the makers have living under the Act? It takes me outside of my lived experience and addresses the truth of First Nation’s history – one that was that was never discussed at school.
Physical attraction: aesthetics
Some objects sweep you off your feet through their good looks, material and textures. Two, in particular, vie for my attention. Popa Dabad, the award winning ghostnet piece by Erub Arts Centre’s Nancy Kiwat, was made in 2016. The colours, materials and inquiring angle of his head always make stop me in my tracks and spend an extra minute in contemplation.
Equally enchanting, for me, is a 1920s photograph album one of the volunteers uncovered while we were working on the Cairns Museum redevelopment. Each page is a visual delight. Some are decorated with line drawings, quotes and graphic titles, and many of the photos are hand coloured. I cannot resist a visit when I stop into the museum stop and gaze at the facsimile that is part of the museum’s display.
Intrigue and curiosity
How does that work? It is a question that people often ask when they see old equipment in museums. When I first visited Millaa Millaa Museum on the Tablelands I became intrigued by the story of migrant Swedish healer, Ernst Kjellberg, and the electric light bath he used that was stashed under the museum. How did it work? Where did the bulbs go? Where did you sit? Lots of questions that the individual pieces struggled to convey. But when the group arranged an exhibition to commemorate 100th anniversary of Kjellbergs arrival in the district, they reassembled the bath. It was fantastic to see it come back to life and to understand how it operated.
Becoming friends: understanding
Objects and collections can be like good friends – the more you get to know them, the more you admire them. When I started to work on the Reef Productions collection for Cairns Museum last year, I had no idea how much detail we would be able to uncover. Slowly, with the help of colleagues and community, we started to piece together a history of owners, an organization and a community through a collection of objects.
Attracted to the diversity and style of the artwork, I was inspired to get to know the different artists who created them, the different subjects they depicted and the motivations behind their work. In doing so, a whole new understanding about the tourism history and community Cairns emerged. I have learned about the burgeoning arts scene in Cairns during the 1970s and 1980s, and been able to explore the different works of art more deeply. And although my work on the collection and exhibition is now finished, I remain interested in the works and what they tell us.
In understanding my own motivation better, I feel I am better placed to help volunteers and museum workers in the region sustain their interest in their history and collections. That’s my hope, anyway.
How many people do you know who have never visited their local museum or gallery? Quite often we are unaware of the treasures hidden inside buildings that are just around the corner. Or perhaps we have just never got around to visiting them as we’re too busy with our daily lives.
If you’re in Cairns this weekend, and you’ve never been out to Yarrabah, here is the perfect opportunity. In a bid to entice Cairns locals, as well as other visitors, to explore the community, Yarrabah Arts Centre is holding an open day this Saturday. This means the Arts Centre and Menmuny Museum, with it’s exhibitions that tell the story of the Yarrabah Mission and community, will be open. Why not visit to experience and explore the cultural traditions, creativity and important history that is presented at Yarrabah Arts Centre?
In mid July, MDOs Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills worked with Bradley Higgins, archivist from Yarrabah’s Menmuny Museum, to install the “Blow ‘Im: The Yarrabah Brass Band Story” exhibition in time for the Yarrabah Band Festival.
In just over three days, the museum space was reinvigorated, whilst maintaining the consistency of original stories and exhibition rationale. Object cases were cleaned, moved and reinstalled. Graphic panels were re-hung. Some cases were relined with calico. Object supports were also made for an original euphonium used in the first band that was donated to the Museum A new object label was also produced to accompany the display.
Digital screens were installed to make Menmuny Museum’s pictorial collection more accessible to visitors, and showcase an interview with the exhibition’s original curator, Elverina Johnston. A descendant of the Kunganji tribe of the Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, Elverina curated “Blow ‘Im” in 2003. The exhibition comprises graphic text panels that explore the history of Yarrabah Brass bands as well as other Indigenous brass bands all around Queensland from 1901 to the 1970’s.
The Yarrabah Band Festival was put on by Queensland Music Festival and supported by Queensland Performing Arts. Check out the following link to find out how the project got started, and its importance to communities in the following short video clip on the ABC.
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.
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.