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Journey through Australia with treasured objects from the Museum’s collection.

by Carol Cooper, Jennifer Wilson and Karolina Kilian, Collections Development Unit

From late October 2012, the Main Hall of the Museum will feature an eclectic mix of items from the collection, based on the theme of travelling across Australia. Framed by beautiful views of Lake Burley Griffin, 10 new exhibits will transform the light-filled Hall into a vibrant and convivial meeting place.

Magazine spread of the 'Well-travelled' article that features a photograph of Harold Wright inside the Saw Doctor's wagon.
Photograph of Harold Wright inside the Saw Doctor's wagon.

A Tasmanian bark canoe, new but made to an ancient blueprint, represents the oldest travelling technology in the exhibition. Commissioned by the Museum from Rex Greeno and family in 2012, the bark canoe is an impressive example of those made by Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century to journey around coastal Tasmania and its offshore islands.

Not simply a painting, the striking Martumili Ngurra canvas portrays the creation journeys of ancestral beings, and pathways taken and made by the Martu community while caring for their country. European settlers introduced horses to our country, and the Ranken family’s coach, brought from Scotland in the early 1820s, formed part of the privileged life of the squattocracy who prospered on the Bathurst plains.

Replacing the power of horses as a form of both energy and transport were steam engines, trains, bicycles and motor cars. Portable engines like the Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, took over from heavy horses to pull loads and drive machinery. Paddle steamers such as the Enterprise plied their way along the inland waterways of south-eastern Australia, transporting cargo and passengers to towns and stations. While the Enterprise itself may be glimpsed at the Museum jetty from the Main Hall, a model made by a direct descendant of its original maker will be featured in the Hall. A massed display of Bruce Macdonald's collection of Australian-made model and toy trains will highlight the widespread passion for these steaming technologies.

Visitors will also be able to see a Citroën tourer that was the first car to be driven around Australia. Neville Westwood, a young missionary, undertook this epic journey in 1925. Another fascinating object that will be displayed is the Malvern Star bicycle owned by Ernie Old, who was over 70 years old when he embarked on his crusade for long-distance cycling, criss-crossing Australia and far exceeding the 17,000 plus kilometres travelled in Westwood's circumnavigation.

The 1930s Depression forced different choices for travel and enterprise. Australian engineer Edgar Percival moved to England where he co-founded an aircraft design company, manufacturing the Percival Gull aircraft, which gained a worldwide reputation for high performance. In a reversal of these circumstances, Harold Wright migrated from England in 1930, settling down to an itinerant lifestyle as a travelling blade sharpener in his 'Saw Doctor's' wagon. Both men adapted to the opportunities that came their way, and their legacies will provide fascinating viewing in the Hall.

The Saw Doctor’s wagon

The Saw Doctor’s wagon, travelling home and workshop belonging to Harold Wright 1930s–60s.
The Saw Doctor's wagon, travelling home and workshop belonging to Harold Wright 1930s–60s.
Details of features inside the Saw Doctor’s wagon. Tools used for sharpening and repairing domestic utensils and saws.
Details of features inside the Saw Doctor's wagon. Tools used for sharpening and repairing domestic utensils and saws.

This unique wagon was the mobile home and workshop of Harold Wright, who started travelling the roads of rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. After migrating from England to Australia in 1930, Wright began walking Queensland roads to find work. In 1935, he used the little money he had saved to convert a horsedrawn wagon into a combined workshop and home. Over the next 34 years, as he travelled throughout the farmlands and towns of north-west Victoria and New South Wales sharpening knives and blades, Wright made updates and changes to his wagon, promoting himself as 'The Saw Doctor'.

Along the way he met and married Dorothy Jean McDougall and together they raised a daughter, Evelyn May. The family travelled with dogs, cats and chickens, rarely spending more than a few days in any one place. Wright attracted business by decorating the wagon, which he affectionately named the Road Urchin, with signs, trinkets and bright paint. He used a variety of grinding wheels and files to sharpen saws, scissors, lawnmower blades, knives and shears. Moving with the times and the economy, Wright refurbished and enlarged the original wagon, fitting it onto the chassis of a truck, towing it with several different tractors and, when rising fuel costs and shortages started to bite, hitching it back onto a horse.

Wright continued to live and work in his wagon until his death in 1969. Soon after, his wife sold the wagon and tractor to a scrapyard in Wangaratta. It remained there until saved by collectors Peter and Wyn Herry in 1977, when Peter recognised the remarkable vehicle that had trundled through his town during his childhood.

The Museum purchased the wagon and tractor from the Herrys in 2002, initiating an extensive collection and preservation project. Multiple trips were made to the Herry’s farm near Wangaratta to organise the safe transport of the wagon, tractor and around 3000 loose items, including hundreds of metal files, to the Museum’s storage facility in Canberra.

Museum staff cleaned the wagon and tractor, documented their parts and contents, and treated them to prevent further deterioration. Conservators stitched and reinforced the torn canvas awnings on the wagon, stabilised and wax-coated the paintwork, and restored the tractor engine to working condition.

In the Main Hall exhibit you will see detailed photography of the quirky features of the wagon and tractor in multimedia displays, so that you, too, can explore the hidden treasures of the Saw Doctor's wagon.

The Saw Doctor's wagon and other objects will be on display at the Museum from October 2012.