Examples of material culture research in museums - showcases II
Chaired by Martha Sear, National Museum of Australia, 30 May 2008
MARTHA SEAR: Hello everybody and welcome to the second of the showcase sessions at today’s collections symposium. My name is Martha Sear and I’m a senior curator here at the National Museum of Australia. It is my pleasure to present five speakers to you today. I’ll be endeavouring to keep each of them to time and also to keep the question period to the allocated five minutes at the end of every paper. But there will be a further 15 minutes at the end of the five papers to continue our conversation about the issues and ideas that they raise.
‘Re-presenting Little Red Riding Hood’ – Karen Schamberger, National Museum of Australia
MARTHA SEAR: Our first speaker this afternoon is Karen Schamberger. Karen is a colleague of mine, a curator here at the National Museum of Australia, and she’s a member of the team that is developing the new Australian Journeys gallery. As part of her work on the gallery, Karen has developed a research interest in objects produced in displaced persons’ camps following World War Two [WWII]. Today she’ll be speaking about one of those objects, an object that is in the National Historical Collection and that will also feature in the new Australian Journeys gallery: the Little Red Riding Hood wall hanging. Over to you, Karen.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Before I begin I would like to thank Patrya Kay and Deb Spoehr, two of the conservators here at the National Museum of Australia, for helping me read this object.
‘Many years ago a wall hanging was given to us which is a part of wartime history as the accompanying note explains,’ wrote Joan Tapp on behalf of the management committee of the Forest Hill Residential Kindergarten in November 1990 to the Australian War Memorial. The wall hanging did not fit their collecting guidelines, so the offer was directed to the National Museum of Australia. The Museum was interested because it was brought over by a woman working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration after WWII. The woman’s name is Valerie Paling.
Each time the wall hanging changed hands it was given as a gift. The wall hanging was made by a Ukrainian refugee, Olga Basylewycz, at Neu Ulm Displaced Persons Camp in Germany in 1946. She gave the war hanging to Valerie Paling in thanks and appreciation for her work. When Paling returned to Australia, she presented the wall hanging to the Forest Hill Kindergarten to be ‘a home in the country for a few weeks for kindergarten children who need special nurture.’ This shows Paling’s humanitarian side and how she valued the wall hanging. It was then given to the Museum when the kindergarten closed in 1990, so the memories of Basylewycz and Paling could be treasured.
All we know of Olga Basylewycz is on this wall text which hung beside the wall hanging at the Forest Hill Kindergarten and what Basylewycz has woven into the blanket itself - her skill, determination, ingenuity and generosity. The wall hanging is made from materials she could find and trade cigarettes for. On a standard issue United Nation’s blanket she applied fur, scraps of linen, felt, paper, wool and even a pine cone. Basylewycz migrated to the United States of America, so to start with the wall hanging’s significance was its association with the Australian aid worker, Valerie Paling. However, more recently it is Basylewycz’s story, that of refugee and migrant, that has become most prominent. An example comes in an article in the reCollections journal written by a former National Museum of Australia curator Ian McShane [‘Museology and public policy: Rereading the development of the National Museum of Australia’s collection’, reCollections, vol. 2, no. 2]. In it McShane focuses his analysis on the development of the Museum’s collection, and the Little Red Riding Hood wall hanging is used as an illustration of the migrant heritage collecting program undertaken by Professor Zubryzcki and Dr Kunz from 1988 to 1990.
The caption to the image contained in the article is as follows:
Quilt or wall-hanging featuring Little Red Riding Hood, made by Ukrainian woman Olga Basylewycz in a displaced persons camp in southern Germany, 1946. This quilt, which can be interpreted as a vivid allegory of Nazism, became an innocent wall decoration at a Melbourne kindergarten before donation through the Museum’s migrant heritage program.
As I noted earlier, the wall hanging was an offer that came to the Museum independent of the migrant heritage collecting program, although it did come at the same time. It was made in a displaced persons camp, like much of the migrant heritage material collected by the Museum at that time. For these reasons perhaps it has been interpreted as a migrant heritage object.
If we go back to the file, the curatorial assessment draws on the migrant connection but also notes:
This object is particularly interesting as it reflects not only the experiences of those people displaced by war but also that of Australian officials and relief organisation workers who were working in Europe after the war.
Unfortunately, this assessment was also completed at a time when curators were not readily acknowledged on assessments they wrote, nor were they referenced. Therefore, I can’t find out why the anonymous curator interpreted the wolf as signifying the Nazis.
A brief look at Ukraine’s complex and bloody history sees parts of what is now Ukraine occupied by Poland, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. Part of Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] in 1922. Various Ukrainian nationalist groups fought for independence between the two world wars. Soviet Ukraine underwent a massive famine in the 1930s which claimed between three million and 11 million lives, depending on who you believe, and parts of Ukraine were invaded, ceded and invaded again by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, finally being subsumed into the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.
The ‘vivid allegory of Nazism’ mentioned in Ian McShane’s paper, and the assessment, is not discounted but broadened and more complex. Neither the wall text nor the information provided by the donor includes anything about Basylewycz’s political views, so the wolf could be representative of all or any of these nations or political groups.
Or alternatively, is it possible that Valerie Paling influenced the representation of Little Red Riding Hood in the wall hanging? The clothing shown on the wall hanging is the English Riding Hood. Was Basylewycz learning English? Did she read or hear the English version of the story in the camp - maybe even from Paling herself? Basylewycz also uses stumpwork, an embroidery technique which originated in England, to create a three-dimensional effect for some of the characters and plants, particularly the mushroom, the frog and the wolf in that picture.
Paling was a Melbourne school teacher who would have grown up with an English version of the story, and it’s possible that she communicated this version at the camps. Whether she knew stumpwork, an embroidery technique, I have not been able find out. We may never know why Basylewycz threaded the story of Little Red Riding Hood or who she learned stumpwork from, but the wall hanging itself provides some tantalising suggestions.
Paling began her career as a field officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration [UNRRA] in 1945. Within a year she had risen to become a camp director for UNRRA and later for the International Refugee Organisation responsible for 7000 people across seven different camps in southern Germany.
A Ukrainian refugee who was a child at Neu Ulm Displaced Persons Camp and then migrated to the United States, Roman Voronka, kindly provided me with this description of Paling: ‘Valerie Paling deeply cared about the fate and welfare of the refugees. In response she was liked and appreciated. She was presented with little gifts that were especially crafted for her.’
Voronka’s uncle, Roman Sohor, photographed camp life and in his collection are a number of photographs which include Paling. According to Voronka, Paling inspired and encouraged the refugees to learn a trade or skill that would prove useful after they migrated to a new country. Those skills included embroidery, sewing, woodwork and mechanics. Roman Sohor’s photos show some of the objects that were made through this process.
The wall hanging can be reinterpreted and re-assessed within this context. It can still be considered an extension of the NMA’s migrant heritage collection but perhaps with more emphasis placed on Paling’s significant role in helping refugees apply for migration to Australia.
It is the material remains of not only Olga Basylewycz’s experiences of camp life but also the material evidence of the experiences, memories and inspiration provided by an Australian aid worker, Valerie Paling. In 1952 she wrote to Roman Voronka’s mother:
Have you forgotten Reinhardt and those six long years? I don’t think you ever will however hard you try. People, events, conditions, atmosphere of those camps are branded into my brain as if with red hot irons. How much more so in yours?
QUESTION: by Craig Wilcox. Talk about an evocative object - evocative in its rejection by the War Memorial as well as by its acquisition here, because it really highlights the distinction between what you might call a national military story, the one you get on Anzac Day, and then the collective or family military story that has come down to all of us from all of our relatives.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Yes, that is a very interesting point. I guess at that stage the War Memorial was the national collecting institution that was most obvious to the kindergarten. I think its acceptance by the National Museum of Australia indicates its focus then was very much on social history. Obviously the War Memorial considered it also to be social history. The demarcation between the two institutions is interesting.
QUESTION: Karen, I know you have done a lot of work around trying to understand the Little Red Riding Hood story in broader European history. Could you talk a little bit more about Olga’s choice of the hood rather than the cap or some of the other kinds of clothing that Little Red Riding Hood wears across the whole of Europe in the telling of this story?
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Most of you would be familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ story called Rotkäppchen, or in the English translation ‘Little Red Cap’. The German version of the story shows Little Red Riding Hood wearing a German cap. That was followed by another version from France by Charles Perrault. The French version uses the chaperon, which comes down to the shoulders. When those stories were translated into English, Little Red Riding Hood acquired the hood. If you go back to the earliest known versions of the story, she did not have a red hood, a red cap or a red chaperon at all. That was an invention by Charles Perrault.
QUESTION: It’s a complex story.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: It’s very complex.
‘Samuel McCaughey was wrong. The truth is in the wool’ - Erika Dicker, Powerhouse Museum
MARTHA SEAR: Our next speaker is Erika Dicker, a curator from the Powerhouse Museum. But, after having had a brief chat with her and a bit of a familiarity with the collection that she’s been working with, you could probably classify her as a wool classer - if you wanted a career in the shearing shed instead of the storage shed. Erika is going to talk to us about the Bill Montgomery wool collection that she documented in 2007, which is an extensive collection of 5000 wool samples. She will tell us a bit more about that project. Please join me in welcoming her today.
ERIKA DICKER: Thanks, Martha. It’s not often I get a captive audience to talk about the wool collection. My talk will cover the Bill Montgomery wool collection and how we used it as a source material, and also how new technology can be used on old collections to provide new and unique information.
The Bill Montgomery wool collection consists of over 7000 samples. The older part of the collection comprised about 5000 samples dating from 1856 to 1906. These samples of wool were collected by the Powerhouse Museum at a time when scientific research was prominent in the museum’s activities. Also as most of you know, the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo [Sydney] is very near the site of the old Sydney wool sales. So the farmers used to bring their sheep to sell and to donate samples to the Museum. The honorary wool classer at the time, Alfred Hawkesworth, looked after the collection, so large parts of the Museum were dedicated to displaying wool and woollen products.
However, this all changed. In 1979 the focus of the museum changed. Wool was no longer considered important and the collection was given away to Bill Montgomery - actually no, I’m not going to say that. The collection was not given away to Bill Montgomery; the collection was actually thrown out. It was actually put in the garbage bins out the back of the museum. Bill Montgomery stood at the docks of the museum and pleaded with them not to throw it away. He was a wool classing teacher from Newcastle Technical College and he took the whole collection back to the college in Newcastle and used it to teach with. Upon his retirement they were going to throw the collection away again, so he took it back to his house and kept it in his garage. He couldn’t park his car in his garage for 15 years. The Powerhouse purchased this entire collection back from Bill in 2003, and we were able to research it last year with the grant given to us by Australian Wool Innovation.
I will give a bit of background information on the wool industry in Australia. Samuel McCaughey was a pastoralist in the late 1800s in the Riverina area. He purchased his property called Coonong in about 1860. He not only was a very influential man but also was very wealthy, and he started his flock using very high quality Tasmanian merinos. He used to experiment with different bloodlines and he would give his experiments a year, which in sheep breeding is not a long time. But he had some luck and built this awesome, amazing flock of sheep that everyone wanted to buy and everyone really trusted that his sheep were the best. So by about 1883 he had one of the most sought-after breeds of sheep in the area.
But then Samuel McCaughey got greedy because he wanted more weight in his wool. He travelled to America and saw a specific type of breed of sheep called the Vermont. And in one year, 1886, he ended up bringing back over 500 of these sheep to his flocks in a bit of a snap judgment - he was quite a hasty man.
The villains of the story are the Vermont, a breed of sheep from the state of Vermont in America, which produce huge amounts of wool mainly due to the heavy wrinkle where their skin is folded. This allows them to grow a lot more wool than the average plain-bodied sheep that was in Australia at the time.
The Vermont were the sheep McCaughey brought back, and the weight of his wool more than doubled in a few short years. He also became invincible at shows. Remembering that he was a very influential man, a lot of the judges at the shows at the time were associated personally with McCaughey. But he was so influential that other breeders of plain-bodied sheep gave up. They wouldn’t bring their sheep to shows because there was just no point. So people in the area started buying these sheep from McCaughey and in the end some 90 per cent of farmers in Australia introduced this breed of sheep from McCaughey’s lead.
However, great debate raged around Australia about these sheep. It was played out in most of the major newspapers in editorial columns and opinion columns through very influential merino farmers. Alfred Hawkesworth, the honorary wool classer to the Powerhouse Museum at the time, stated his great disappointment in the Vermont samples that were being donated. What was this debate about? McCaughey had obviously invested a lot of money into breeding these Vermonts. However, half the weight of their wool washed out when the wool was washed. It was all due to the grease. So the skin folds just produced a lot of greasy wool. While it was at a time in Australia where they just wanted quantity - they were breeding for lots and lots of wool - farmers were debating whether quality should be foremost over quantity.
McCaughey didn’t give up. He stayed fast to his breed. He’d obviously invested a lot of time in them. He never admitted that his wool was bad quality or that the weight was due to the grease in the sheep. These Vermonts were so badly adapted to the environment; they couldn’t withstand the harsh Australian conditions. Their thick skin folds attracted blowflies and the maggots were unstoppable. It could be seen that one of the reasons mulesing is done now is that the folds on the back of the sheep had to be cut away. The Vermonts were also extremely hard to shear, with shearers referring to them as ‘uneven corrugated iron’ and one ram could take up to two hours to shear.
Australia suffered a huge drought in 1902, one of the worst this country’s ever seen, and it decimated the industry because the sheep just could not withstand the conditions. But McCaughey never admitted that he was wrong and it took years to breed the Vermonts out of the Australian sheep industry. After the drought he gave up and started breeding plain-bodied sheep once again. That gives you a bit of background on the sheep industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
We tested the Bill Montgomery collection using OFDA 2000 technology. This optical fibre diameter analysis system tests a piece of wool fibre in 25 seconds for micron, crimp, stapling and comfort factor. We tested 1200 of the Bill Montgomery samples, and this new technology proved once and for all that McCaughey was wrong: the Vermont breed was quite terrible. We discovered it in 25 seconds as opposed to years and years.
The samples that we had of McCaughey’s sheep that we put through the OFDA machine show quite clearly the demise of the wool as McCaughey bred the Vermont into his flock. The wool becomes very, very greasy and extremely coarse at 25.6 microns. New technology such as the OFDA machine means that these breeding disasters can be a thing of the past.
Through my research on this collection I also discovered some other secrets in the Powerhouse Museum. We have several museum stock books where they used to record the original wool samples coming into the museum. This might relate back to using texts as objects. These books are museum objects, yet they hold vital genetic information as the farmers used to record the breeding line of the sheep as the DNA of the sample. I deciphered about 3000 entries from the stock books. This is an example of one of the entries: Golden Tom 2 by Golden Tom by Treasurer, by Golden Tom, by Sir Thomas 2 by Old Sir Thomas - it goes on and on. Wool historian Charles Massy believes this information is not recorded anywhere else in Australia, because farmers didn’t like to admit the secrets of where their sheep had come from. By using this information to create detailed genetic trees we could trace all the wool samples in our collection back to three stud rams. The results of all this work were used in the publication The Australian Merino by Charles Massy last year, which is thought by some to be the bible on the history of the merino.
That’s how we used our wool collection as a source material to help gain a unique insight into the history of a fibre that helped build Australia. But I think wool as an object doesn’t speak very well for itself. It’s not something people can interpret that easily without other information. This is just one story. I think our wool collection may hold many stories about the economy, the environment, agriculture, manufacture techniques - it is all just there to be discovered. Thank you.
QUESTION: Alex Antonello from the Museums and Collections program at the Australian National University. My honours thesis was on the Federation drought, and it occurred to me when you showed the series of Vermont wool from 1894 through to 1900 that was the deterioration of the samples perhaps due either to the breed or to the prolonged drought from 1895 onwards of just pathetic seasons? Did Australian merino wool shape as badly as the Vermont wool during the drought? I agreed with the point you made at the end that perhaps it can shine a light on environmental history to ask what do wool samples tell us about good seasons and bad seasons and those kinds of things. That is one use of material history there.
ERIKA DICKER: Yes, that is a really good point. I think it’s due to both the Vermont becoming more and more inbred in the flock and definitely the environmental conditions, because the sheep were so badly adapted, the folds maybe became tighter as it got drier and the wool just deteriorated into absolute disaster.
If you have a look at our samples of other plain-bodied merinos at the time - they are all online on our collection database as well as the test results - you can see that they stand up. They had been bred here for years and years before this and were very well adapted to the environment.
QUESTION: I think the statistic was that 40 or 50 million sheep died during the drought?
ERIKA DICKER: Yes, 19 million.
QUESTION: Yes, I suppose that is in eastern Australia. Were the majority of them Vermonts or?
ERIKA DICKER: The majority were Vermonts, yes.
QUESTION: Erika, I’m fascinated by the story of the collection going into the Powerhouse Museum, out of the museum and then back into the museum. Would you like to reflect on how the decisions were made? What particularly saw the collection being revalued and being taken in the second time?
ERIKA DICKER: The revalue of the collection resulting in it being taken in the second time was mainly fuelled by our curator of biotechnology, Sandra McEwen, as well as Charles Massy, who both saw the importance and the value of this collection. Sandra knew the collection history and how it was disposed. She knew where it was located all along and really pushed hard to purchase that collection back from Bill. Sadly, Bill Montgomery passed away last year, so it was one of our last chances to acquire the collection.
QUESTION: Following on from that, was it the fact that the collection went through a life cycle of being useful in terms of the capacity for it to be scientifically analysed at a certain point, became useless in the context of a certain time that wasn’t valuing that sort of use of the collection as a source for science about Australian wool, and then when the technology changed that allowed for a different apprehension of the collection again in those terms that that’s when it came back into prominence? Was it the kind of scientific value all the way through?
ERIKA DICKER: No, sadly, I don’t think so. When they got rid of the collection in 1979 it may have been a space issue. The Powerhouse Museum was in small buildings in Harris Street, and I know the wool took up a lot of space. I think that the one curator at the time was interested in furniture and may have put his personal preference against keeping the wool. And actually we didn’t re-acquire the collection with the thought of scientifically testing it. That opportunity only came about with the grant we received in 2007.
‘Percy Faithfull’s quiet red coat’ – Craig Wilcox
MARTHA SEAR: Our next speaker is Craig Wilcox. Craig is an independent scholar, and he was with the National Museum of Australia earlier in the year as a visiting fellow. Craig, is your book Red Coat Dreaming nearly finished?
CRAIG WILCOX: Yes, it nearly is.
MARTHA SEAR: That’s good. And Craig will be talking about one of those red coats that feature in his book, a particular one worn by a member of the Faithfull family while they were in the Volunteer Rifles. The Faithfull family collection is also with the National Museum as part of the Springfield assessment we did.
CRAIG WILCOX: While other speakers are claiming successful encounters with objects, I am going to admit to a failed one. I didn’t extract useful evidence from a study I made recently as a visiting fellow here at the National Museum of the red coat now being used as the icon for this symposium. Now that might reflect on me or it might reflect on a particular object. Still, failure can be instructive - or so those of us who fail often tell ourselves.
It prompted me to think, then in private and now here in public, about the potential of material history and one danger that I think is inherent in it. As Martha said, the coat was worn by Percy Faithfull, the eldest son of a prosperous pastoralist. He wore it around the year 1870 as a subaltern in the Volunteer Rifles, a part-time, community-based military force closer in spirit to today’s fire brigades than to our professional army.
He left almost no written record of his life in uniform. Almost as scarce are documents on the Volunteer Rifles generally and on almost any uniforms worn in colonial Australia, whether about their manufacture or import, their fitting or buying. The written evidence that historians are trained to turn to left plenty of silences for this coat to fill, or so I thought when I began my study.
I also thought, surely an object so visually eloquent is going to be historically eloquent too. What did the coat say? Its cloth, colour and cut are almost identical to those of coats worn by junior officers in the British army of the day. The silver braid and buttons identify part-time military force. The buttons are stamped with a horn, a crown and the letters VR, which evoke Volunteer Rifles as well as Victoria Regina. The buttons also bear the name of a British firm and were therefore imported. But there’s no label on the coat itself to reveal where or by whom the tailoring was done, let alone where the cloth came from.
The coat was cut to fit a tall, thin man who might have grown into fuller girth during the coat’s working life since the chest buttons seem to have been let out a little. Other signs of wear are minimal. The coat’s lining and the pocket contained in the lining look almost new to me. There are some stains on the collar which might be from hair oil. All this suggests that the coat wasn’t worn for long or during rigorous training, let alone on active service. Slight uncertainty in the silver braid might indicate a tailor or seamstress unfamiliar with sewing an officer’s uniform.
If it seems a useful picture is emerging of a derivative uniform of an auxiliary military force and of a possibly less than committed wearer, let’s compare that with what written evidence reveals. The adoption of British red coats by the Volunteer Rifles turns out to be documented, however sporadically and imperfectly, in the pages of Sydney newspapers and in government records. These also suggest why the adoption occurred. ‘The men like it’, a colonel said. ‘There’s a feeling amongst them that it’s associated with actual soldiering’.
The lack of wear to Percy Faithfull’s coat proves no surprise. Family papers here at the Museum and in the National Library suggest something unserious about the man - a dandy who chose to live on his father’s money rather than through his own efforts. Those papers also contain dozens of dance cards, suggesting an unsuspected environment in which the coat might have been seen and maybe one reason for using so much hair oil. In any case, Percy Faithfull left the Volunteer Rifles soon after his coat was made, a departure confirmed by a resignation letter now hidden away in state archives. That he had little chance to wear out his coat before then is suggested by newspaper reports and memoirs of Volunteer Rifles activities, which affirm how little rigorous drill was done and, when it was, that shooting jackets were usually worn for that kind of thing.
Then there’s the visual evidence. Photographs, some held by the Museum, do more than simply affirm that Percy Faithfull was tall and thin. They tell us what he looked like with a big, serious face and mop of rich hair perched above his bean stalk of a body. An eyewitness drawing, which accompanied an article on the Volunteer Rifles in the Illustrated Sydney News, conjured up what his coat would have looked like when he wore it. It shows it as part of a full uniform, and its elegant but improbable shape shows us how contemporaries liked to see it, taking us to the aesthetic and martial mindsets which ultimately determine its cuts and its colour.
When sources like this and the coat itself cover the same points then, it’s these sources which speak louder, which I suspect is true of many objects made in literate societies for public use. Written evidence also speaks, or maybe makes a suggestion, on one point where the coat seems stubbornly mute. Histories of cloth weaving and of the wool industry suggest that European rather than colonial wool was popular for uniforms at the time and that the weaving was likely to have been done in England.
Mike Smith, sitting here quietly in the front row, might be thinking to himself that the stubbornness I’m talking about is in my head, not in the coat. When I was studying the coat he pointed out that analysing some of its fibres - and we just heard about the potential of that - could establish whether the wool came from the northern hemisphere or the southern hemisphere. That’s worth finding out, sure, but I’ve just got one caveat. I could be wrong here, but, if most red cloth was made for uniforms in England from European wool, then what we’d find out is whether Percy Faithfull’s red coat had a typical source or an untypical one. That’s useful to know about the coat itself, but of uniforms generally in colonial Australia - unfortunately not.
Written evidence seems silent on where the cloth was made into a coat. The uncertain cuff braid remains, I think, the best indicator of local crafting. At last, you might be thinking, he’s using the coat as evidence. But, of course, I’m not doing that. I’m interpreting what I see in a silent object. I mention one example of such an interpretation to say why I’m a little wary of that and indeed why I think it’s a danger inherent in material history.
Clayton Fredericksen, a good archaeologist, wrote a few years ago about a broken badge from an 1820s British army headdress that he had found on Melville Island, north of Darwin. The apparently deliberate removal of part of that headdress badge, Clayton guessed, might have been a politically charged act of disfigurement by a soldier stationed there who was fed up with garrison duty and with his officers. But it might also have been broken for perfectly mundane reasons. Because we know that soldiers stationed on Melville Island had a rotten time we are tempted to read this into the material evidence that we find. The silence of an object is a temptation for us to fill that silence with what we know or what we think we know, and things get worse when we start filling it merely with our own opinions.
But if an object is silent, it isn’t created in silence. Everything we make is a product of our imaginations. We imagine in words, and where an object is made in a literate society for public use, like this coat, some of those words will be written down and some of those words will be preserved. Words like those of the colonel who said that a red coat evoked actual soldiering. In one sense, such words are better records than the objects themselves. They are more of a primary source. They tell us what an object’s intention was, because they gave birth to it. But in one way, of course, an object, despite its silence, will always speak louder than words. It shows us where the intention behind the object fell short.
To my mind the real potential of the material history of literate societies is here in pointing to precisely where reality took over from imagination. Percy Faithfull’s coat tells us, at least in his case, that the full-breasted puffery seen in the newspaper illustrator’s mind was largely in the illustrator’s mind; that the cuff braid which proclaimed an officer mightn’t do so with textbook elegance; and that even expensive hair oil can compromise a young dandy’s looks. Thank you.
MARTHA SEAR: Thank you, Craig. Questions from the audience?
QUESTION: by Maria Nugent from the National Museum. I was just wondering about the assumption between something visually eloquent then being an assumption that it would be historically eloquent as well, and what that does for objects which are not visually eloquent and therefore you might assume that.
CRAIG WILCOX: Yes, that’s right. It takes us back to one of the best points that was raised this morning that an object like Percy Faithfull’s red coat will always attract us even when it’s almost mute. There’s a good story to Percy Faithfull’s red coat, but I haven’t told it because I’m talking about what the coat tells us itself. There is still a visual eloquence to the thing, and I don’t want to play that down.
QUESTION: by Nicholas Brown. What struck me about your presentation, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the sessions that I’ve been to today, is a certain sense that there is a one-line process of deduction that you’re going to take from this document/material/thing. We have a coat. Therefore you want to find out about the individual who wore that coat. Therefore we want to find out something about the context of that individual’s life, and it lets us down on that particular trajectory.
Why is that the only kind of question you might seek to ask about the coat? Because in some ways the things that you are identifying in the coat - as a tailored object - started to fascinate me. The fact that these coats don’t get spat out of a machine and they’re sometimes clumsily braided is interesting. And maybe there are distinctions to be made between officers who got their coats made for them at an expensive tailor and officers who get their coats made for them somewhere else.
There is a further possibility in thinking of it as a military uniform and looking at it in comparison with other uniforms that might have been worn in society at that time. So the silence of the object or the frustration you have with the object partly depends on the kind of context you want to put it in. And why do we assume that a coat worn by an individual is going to be significant for the story it is going to tell us about the individual, rather than something inherent in the notion of a coat as an object of clothing at a particular time?
CRAIG WILCOX: What a great question. The one thing that has always annoyed me is that Nick Brown is so much smarter than me and so much more articulate. Anyway, I’ll just stumble through an answer. In fact, in this case I do look quite good because when I was investigating the coat, one thing I did want to look at was at the manufacture. I was really interested to try to find out about it. Presumably, this coat is a one-off. It isn’t a coat worn by an ordinary man in the ranks, even though the ordinary men in the ranks themselves tended to have a bit of money behind them given by a patron or whatever. But in this case clearly you can think of the object as partly an industrial production, partly a product of design and ideas about what soldiers should look like at the time - particularly what Volunteer Rifle soldiers should look like at the time - and partly to do with women working until they’re almost blind sewing little braids around cuffs for people who earn far more money than they do. And I hoped that the coat would somehow lead me in these directions.
It may be the case that I simply wasn’t imaginative enough, didn’t have enough time, didn’t find enough small leads and didn’t do the kind of technical analysis - and we have seen the advantages that can come from that - it might simply be a question of failure on all of those fronts. But you’re absolutely right you have to look at the thing. And again this takes us back to this morning - all the different ways, all the different paths that an individual object can lead us. That’s, I think, what’s so nice about objects and why I’ll stubbornly keep on thinking about them, even when I get a result like this. Have I just evaded your question - is that what you are going to tell me?
QUESTION: by Nicholas Brown. You always say the power of the braid is in the braid. I mean, I would have thought you would always have an absolutely symmetrical, delicately crafted braid, but here is a coat that doesn’t. It’s kind of like all those officers and soldiers, some of whom have got good commissions, some of whom are fairly pathetic blokes who can’t do anything else. Some of them just wear the uniform so they look good on the dance floor.
CRAIG WILCOX: That is a really good point and also taking us off on another trajectory, which is what does someone from my vantage point in history and with my training think that cuff braid should look like? Of course, after a hundred years of industrial production I expect it to be perfect, but Percy Faithfull might have had no such expectation.
QUESTION: by Nicholas Brown. He might have thought that’s good enough.
CRAIG WILCOX: Yes, or that it’s great - who knows.
QUESTION: by Richard Glasby. I’m not sure about New South Wales but I know with Victorian volunteer regiments there were very precise rules as to what you could wear depending on whether you were in the rifles, the torpedo corps, the armed cavalry, and also then depending on whether you were a private, a gunner, an NCO [non-commissioned officer] or a major – no different from any other military context, of course.
So, in a sense, irrespective of the individual meaning of that coat for Percy Faithfull, that coat was meant to declare things to everybody else. It presumably had very precise messages that told you about his rank, whether it was a dress code or the particular social context in which it should be worn. My understanding, certainly with the Victorian regiments, is that there were quite strict orders as to how you were meant to put a uniform together and how a uniform maker would then have those orders to apply in each of the individual contexts. So, dare I say it, there may be written records that would help to piece together some of the underlying assumptions.
CRAIG WILCOX: Yes, that’s a very good point, and the point comes out to be even better than you might have suspected in that the men themselves vote on these things. They saw themselves as citizens more than soldiers. They were doing their own thing with their own time, often largely with their own money, so therefore thought ‘we get to choose a uniform as well’. They also elected their officers. What’s interesting is that in the early 1860s newspapers reported those debates sometimes about what you would wear and what the distinction between ranks would be at great length, but after five years the newspapers are bored - they’re not interested in that any more. But again that tells us something.
‘Models for Learning: Practical observations on Victorian gold mining from a Swedish artisan’ – Matthew Churchward, Melbourne Museum
MARTHA SEAR: Our next speaker is Matthew Churchward from Museum Victoria. Matthew has worked as a curator of engineering and transport at Museum Victoria since 1994. He has been particularly interested in exploring the way that local creativity and adaptation has affected Australian mining, manufacturing and transport technologies, and today he’s going to speak about a remarkable set of mining technology models that were commissioned in Victoria from the late 1850s. Please welcome Matthew.
MATTHEW CHURCHWARD: Good afternoon everyone. In my case study here this afternoon I want to touch on some aspects of a remarkable series of models, built by a Swedish-born miner and artisan Carl Nordstrom, which document in detail Victorian gold mining technology of the late 1850s. Nordstrom had arrived in Victoria amongst the first wave of overseas gold seekers in 1852 and spent the next five years mining at Ballarat. He would later recall that he began building models as a pastime in his tent on wet days and during odd hours.
The key to this story is Frederick McCoy, who in 1854 was appointed Foundation Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Arriving in Port Phillip on the clipper Champion of the Seas on Boxing Day 1854, McCoy wasted no time in immersing himself in the scientific and cultural life of the young city. He began championing the need to establish a museum of zoological, geological and palaeontological specimens at the university and in December 1857 he was appointed as the first director of the National Museum of Victoria, a position he would fill, in addition to his ongoing academic role, until his death in 1899.
Over the next 15 years from 1857, McCoy was to build a mining collection of international significance, comparable to the collections of leading mining schools and museums in Britain and Europe. His stated aim was to create a didactic collection to impart practical knowledge to eager, unskilled ‘new chums’ arriving in Melbourne en route to the diggings and to enlighten the curious public. He collected the examples of typical mining tools and equipment and commissioned drawings and models. In May 1856, McCoy was appointed to the chair of the Victorian Mining Commission established in the wake of the Eureka uprising. It was through this role that McCoy was able to secure the funding to commission a series of models depicting various aspects of mining on the Victorian goldfields.
McCoy was introduced to Nordstrom through Henry Smith, a mining engineer whom he met when the commission visited Ballarat. In August 1857, Smith wrote to McCoy saying:
I have seen the modeller about whom we conversed when last I had the pleasure to meet you; and he is willing to make a model of a shaft, with drives complete, windlass, et cetera et cetera - with figures in wax, correctly coloured. ... The model would be about 20 pounds and it would take him about eight weeks to complete.
So began a wonderful creative partnership lasting over two years during which Nordstrom made 10 detailed scale models that were put on display at the National Museum of Victoria in the University of Melbourne grounds.
Nordstrom’s first model for McCoy depicts a claim on the Gravel Pits Lead at Ballarat, showing a cross-section of a 20-metre deep shaft, underground tunnels known as drives, and surface installations. Nordstrom faithfully incorporated typical timbering of the shaft lining and details of the wooden surface structures, including a windlass, a hand-cranked mechanical ventilator and the holding paddock used to store washed dirt waiting to be cradled.
All of the Nordstrom models included figures. Nordstrom fashioned his figures from wire frames wrapped with fabric and dipped in hot candle wax. The miners’ hats and hand tools were made out of thin lead sheeting. Though somewhat crude in their facial expressions, the figures make Nordstrom’s models unique within the museum’s extensive collection of mining models. They help to provide a social context and bring the models to life, and have been the key means of enabling generations of young museum visitors to engage with the models.
Following completion of the Gravel Pits model in September 1857, McCoy asked Nordstrom to make a model of a deeper claim operated by a horse whim on the Black Lead at Buninyong. Here Nordstrom had to halve the scale in order to show the whole 40-metre-deep shaft. But he also produced two supplementary models showing at a larger scale details of the underground drives and the horse whim. Once again his attention to detail is superb, with a traditional Cornish miners’ legless barrow shown complete with iron axle fittings and an iron tyre shrunk around the wooden wheel to reduce wear as well as above the barrow there hangs a beautifully fashioned pair of blacksmith’s tongs.
After building six models for the Mining Commission in just over nine months McCoy seems to have become increasingly ambitious, inquiring through Smith if Nordstrom could build a series of three larger models depicting the main types of alluvial mining then practised in Victoria - surfacing, shallow sinking and deep leads. The second of the three models depicts miners working shallow alluvial drifts at Daisy Hill near Maryborough in central Victoria. With these larger models Nordstrom was able, for the first time, to include something of the environmental context of Victorian mining showing bare, denuded hills and silt-choked waterways as well as something of the feverish scene of activity both above and below ground.
Here Nordstrom’s practical mine experience and acute sense of observation really came to the fore. In the contract specification McCoy had asked for the model to include ‘several shafts with whip and all kinds of windlass ... with between 50 and 60 figures’. Nordstrom obliged, showing a hillside peppered with 30 shafts each equipped with subtly different designs of winding gear, creating a unique historical record of the range of windlass and whip designs found on Victorian goldfields. From crude structures fashioned of forked tree branches to skilled tradesmen-built models with carefully carpented timber and blacksmith-forged iron fittings.
For the first time also Nordstrom began to use the scope of these larger models to incorporate little vignettes telling individual narratives. For example, he depicts a miner, injured by the partial collapse of the roof of an underground tunnel, being rescued by his mate while overhead a new chum unbeknowingly is sinking a shaft into worked-out ground.
Undoubtedly, however, the pièce de résistance amongst Nordstrom’s models is a large depiction of the Port Phillip & Colonial Company’s works at Clunes which he built over five months from August to December 1858 at a cost of £215, over twice Nordstrom’s initial quote. To supplement the alluvial mining models McCoy wanted to commission a model showing the most up-to-date quartz mining techniques. The natural choice was Victoria’s largest quartz mine at Clunes - a pioneer of large-scale scientifically-run mining. Floated in London in 1852 the Port Phillip & Colonial Gold Mining Company was the first foreign-owned company to invest in Victorian gold mining. After initially spending several frustrating years trying to obtain alluvial mining lease on Crown land, the company turned its attention to several promising quartz reefs outcropping on private land at Clunes and on 1 January 1857 signed a 21-year lease with the landholders. While the company concentrated on establishing the large treatment works to crush quartz and extract the gold, it arranged for a cooperative party of miners to operate the mine and deliver a guaranteed minimum 50 tons of ore per day for treatment.
Nordstrom built the model on location at the mine, living in a tent on site, and was assisted by the managing director Rivett Bland and the company’s engineering staff to perfect details of the machinery and underground works. Wanting to show the whole operations of a large mining complex that sprawled over several acres, he decided to depict all surface installations and machinery at the same scale of 1:32 but cleverly reduced the distances between features compressing them more closely together while still maintaining a realistic feel. Beneath the hillside at the rear he showed details of underground workings, faithfully reproducing the timbering and stoking techniques used in the actual mine at the time.
For the technically minded mining historian like me, the model incorporates a wealth of detail about machinery that is either not mentioned or barely touched on in written descriptions of the mine. The original treatment plant at Clunes was based on centuries-old Cornish mining technology traditionally used to process tin and copper ores, but the company also drew on mining and metallurgical experience from around the world.
The treatment plant depicted in the model had been constructed progressively over an 18-month period from January 1857 to May 1858 and comprised 44 stampers in total arranged in four units. Under the direction of Joseph Robson, the company’s battery manager, the treatment plant underwent a series of rapid modifications and innovations during the early years of the mine’s life.
The stamp batteries in the model reveal some of the evidence of these early experiments. The No. IV battery shows iron strips fitted to the wooden stems of the stampers to reduce wear and iron bands around the wooden cam barrels to reduce the maintenance headache created by cracking in the revolving wooden barrels. The slightly earlier No. III battery has no iron strips on the stamper stems, and even more iron hoops on the cam barrel - probably evidence of slightly longer use. While the No. II battery is fitted with a cast-iron cam barrel designed by Robson. By 1864 the company’s stamp batteries had been completely transformed with all moving parts being replaced with iron to reduce maintenance costs and increase ore throughput.
Another remarkable feature of the model is the fact that, while written accounts describe each of the five steam engines only in general terms, Nordstrom has modelled them in such detail that it makes it possible to determine the makes and models of the engines. For example, it is possible to identify a Ruston & Proctor twin-cylinder portable engine driving the Chilean mill and water pumps, identifiable by the distinctive ‘winged’ brass maker’s plate on the back end while driving one of the stamp batteries is a patent Clayton & Shuttleworth steam engine.
The model was a triumph for Nordstrom when first exhibited in Melbourne in early February 1859 and so impressed a reporter from the Argus that he described it as unsurpassed in ‘boldness of design, minuteness of detail and beauty of execution’. Shortly afterwards in June 1859 Nordstrom left Victoria, sailing on the Onedin for Southampton.
In the decades since, the Nordstrom models now held by Museum Victoria have continued to create joy and fascination for succeeding generations of museum visitors. Their significance relates not only to the accessible way they depict typical Victorian mining practices of the 1850s but also to the accurate record they provide of early Victorian mining technology, including details not readily gleaned from other written accounts, photographs or etchings.
QUESTION: by Matthew Higgins. Thanks very much, Matthew, that was a great presentation. Can you tell us briefly a little bit about the materials used? For example, the land fill, was that plaster and papier mâché, clay, et cetera?
MATTHEW CHURCHWARD: All of the models that had bulk to them were typically built out of wooden frames. The wood appears to be just recycled packing crates and various other timber at hand. Then they were covered with a wire mesh, a bit like chicken wire, and then covered with plaster of Paris to get the landscape texture. A lot of the timber (the wood that they’re made of) was readily at hand. Most of what would have been metal components in the original machinery he seems to have made out of metal, although probably not the same metals as the actual components. So he used a lot of lead and zinc, which were very easy to fashion, to create what were, for all intents and purposes, iron components.
QUESTION: Thank you, Matthew, very much for that. I love those models and always have. A quick question that hadn’t occurred to me before but, after looking at them and listening to you, I wondered: was McCoy responding to something about museums that he’d brought with him from Britain or can we credit him with beginning the tradition of dioramas in museums, do you think?
MATTHEW CHURCHWARD: That’s a really interesting question and probably warrants some more research. It’s hard to know exactly who came up with the idea of building the diorama-type models. Clearly McCoy understood that in what he was commissioning, because you can see it in the specifications he writes. But preceding the written specifications there were a number of discussions between him and Henry Smith and also with Carl Nordstrom. I believe, although I haven’t been able to verify this, that Nordstrom had built a number of models himself earlier than that which I think had this sort of landscape quality to them as well. So the idea may have come from Carl Nordstrom and been adopted by McCoy or it may have been something that McCoy developed himself. It’s clearly quite different to a lot of the other models in the mining collection and the models that would have been in a lot of European mining collections at that time, which were much more didactic. They were just simple pieces of technology or equipment.
‘Displaying the remote in the metropolis: The 1928 Australian Inland Mission frontier fête and exhibition’ – Ian Coates, National Museum of Australia
MARTHA SEAR: Our final speaker today is Ian Coates, who is a senior curator in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program here at the National Museum of Australia. Ian has written and researched extensively on the history of collecting and the display of Indigenous cultural material. Today he’s going to be talking about the Australian Inland Mission’s [AIM] Frontier Fête and Exhibition which was held at the Sydney Town Hall in 1928. Over to you, Ian.
IAN COATES: In this presentation there will be some terminology for Aboriginal people that is of its time and certainly not the terms that we would use now. But we’ll just go with that.
We have probably all been to a fête, but how many of us think of them as sites of representation and how do they differ from more conventional sites of representation like museums? This is a story about fêtes.
In early 1928 Sisters Sherlock and Grimison, two nurses from the Australian Inland Mission’s Birdsville Nursing Home, wrote to the organisers of the 1928 AIM Frontier Fête and Exhibition:
We are sending down a parcel for your wonderful Fair ... we are sending two boomerangs and a letter - curiosities are few and far between in this district. It has been so dry, and all the blacks have moved through the Fence, and nobody seems to have anything to send.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Presbyterian church and its Australian Inland Mission, or AIM, had a well-established tradition of holding fêtes, stunts, exhibitions and other events as a way of promoting the work of the AIM, educating its patrons and raising funds. My paper examines the materiality that survived from one such event. I focus on its implications for broadening our understanding of the acquisition and display of Australian Indigenous material by non-Indigenous institutions.
The nurses’ letter highlights their quandary about the process of self-representation from the heart of Australia. It also points to the crucial but ambiguous role of Indigenous people in the collation of material for this exhibition. There’s much to untangle here but, in the time available, I want to propose that this collection, the exhibition it stems from, and the relationships it is implicated in, illustrate two important points: firstly, that this exhibition provides a very different model of representation; and, secondly, it points to another model of Indigenous collector relations, one which differs from the usual Indigenous-maker and non-Indigenous collector model so often represented in museum collections.
But firstly I will give you some background about the Australian Inland Mission and this collection. The collection is derived from the activities of the Presbyterian Church’s Australian Inland Mission. This organisation was established in 1912 by the Presbyterian Church of South Australia. The AIM is inextricably linked with the life and work of Reverend John Flynn. The organisation was the result of his 1911 proposal for the Presbyterian Church to establish an agency which would provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for non-Indigenous Australians living in remote locations. This entailed providing for both the spiritual and physical care of these people.
By the 1920s the AIM had established a network of nursing homes in remote parts of Australia. The AIM also went on to pioneer the use of wireless communication and the development of the aerial medical service, the forerunner of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The Presbyterian Church had set up the AIM to be a self-funded organisation. Thus, throughout all of their activities, there was a great emphasis on fundraising and related promotion. Flynn was very much at the cutting edge of promotional techniques. He was a keen photographer and made extensive use of lantern slide presentations to bring an image of the inland to metropolitan audiences. You can interpret the exhibition that I’m going to talk about as an extension of such promotional activities.
As I indicated earlier, the place of Indigenous people in Flynn’s vision was ambiguous. In the 1920s the Presbyterian Church was running Aboriginal missions at Aurukun and Mapoon and would later establish missions at Ernabella and Kunmunya. Flynn saw the AIM as specifically directed towards non-Indigenous people’s needs, with the welfare of Indigenous people already catered for by other parts of the church. In practice, this meant that Aboriginal people were treated as out-patients at AIM hospitals, but they were not admitted as in-patients until the 1930s.
However, from the objects sent in to the 1928 AIM exhibition and the surviving related correspondence, it’s clear that remote-based AIM staff frequently drew on Indigenous objects in selecting material to represent their region and that many of these AIM nursing homes were enmeshed in complex relationships with local Indigenous communities.
I want to turn now to have a quick look at what the collection actually is. The collection arose out of exhibition organiser Andrew Barber’s call to remote-based AIM staff to send in objects which ‘will give the city dweller an opportunity of visualising more clearly the conditions of inland Australia’ - a broad canvas indeed. The resulting museum collection of about 100 items can be viewed as having three interrelated dimensions: the objects actually contained in the collection, the places from which it originated, and the event at which they were displayed.
In terms of objects, the collection is a diverse and eclectic range of material. It includes Indigenous objects, botanical samples, modified wood products, such as turned bowls and cups, samples of different animal skins and hides, fossils and mineral samples. The collection also contains some of the original exhibition labels. It is a collection which defies easy classification into the familiar modes of ethnographic, natural history and/or social history.
In terms of places, the collection originates from the actions of AIM staff, principally women, at nursing homes in different parts of Australia. In this respect, the collection serves as an index of AIM’s reach into inland Australia at that time.
I want to turn now to the third dimension embedded into the collection, the event of the Frontier Fête and Exhibition. There are two parts to this event: firstly, the three-day fête held in Sydney in April 1928; and, secondly, all the preceding activity at the various nursing homes which led up to that fête. Despite the visual impact of such events for visitors, as historians, it’s difficult to retrieve an understanding of what was obviously something of an immersive experience. However, we get a feel of the fête from some contemporary descriptions, and here the witness writes that:
Barber had assembled all kinds of interesting specimens and curios, ranging from buffalo horns to precious stones, a number of which were forwarded by our Sisters and outpost ministers. ... The scheme of decoration of the Hall was effective, representing the Australian Bush. Each stall having the walls covered with ti-tree bark and gum tips, with wild flowers such as flannel flowers, waratahs, Christmas bell, butterflies, in amongst the greenery.
Although a distinct and bounded event, it’s important to understand that the fête and exhibition was related to other AIM activities. Indeed, it occurred during a peak of activity of AIM. For example, it was this fête where John Flynn first publicly launched the concept of the aerial medical service, which was the antecedent of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It occurred at a time when there was huge public interest in the AIM and Flynn’s ambitions for the inland, and precedes by a couple of years the publication of Ion Idriess’s enormously popular Flynn of the Inland.
The reports of Sisters Baker and Fursdon from Port Hedland Nursing Home reveals something of the texture of the activities involved in creating these localised representations in the different nursing homes:
We are trying our best to find curios for your fête in April. There are not a great many things of interest around Hedland, and any we have are much too large to send.
And then later they followed up by saying:
We’re sending you along some curios next boat; our black boy is busy making a box for them; he arrived home with a huge packing case from on his shoulder - begged it from the local grocer, so if you see a large parcel arriving from Hedland, don’t think it’s a fat sheep or kangaroo we are sending you. Sister Fursdon suggested sending her, covered in sand-fly and mosquito bites. Wish we could send a few of our pests over. ... I intended sending the parcel for the fête this mail, but I know the patient coming tomorrow will have some more exhibits. I do hope the fête will be a success. I am writing to friends of mine in Sydney telling them to go along.
And in there we see all the processes of how they’re getting the material together and we see the communication between the AIM staff and the Sydney-based RM staff. The box of curios that they refer to included many Aboriginal objects such as spears, boomerangs and a dried crocodile skin. However, the nurses’ letter also makes clear how the role of Indigenous people in the formation of this collection goes well beyond simply being represented via collected ethnographic material.
The role and representation of Indigenous people takes a further turn if we examine the material sent from the Victoria River Downs Nursing Home by Sisters Dora Norman and Bessie Wood. Out of a range of objects spanning crocodile skins, bird flowers and headbands, a number of knitted dilly bags are of particular interest. They are accompanied by a label which reads: ‘Dilly bag made by Lubras [Indigenous women] of Victoria River Downs with needles and thread’. These bags, in traditional form but made from non-traditional colourful wool, have much in common with the knitted goods made and displayed by Sydney-based AIM supporters in other parts of the fête. Indeed, I would argue that these string bags made in Victoria River Downs can be interpreted as women’s handicrafts rather than as ethnographic specimens. It’s the repositioning of that material that really allows us the possibility of material coming out of very different contexts of acquisition from the standard ethnographic material.
In closing I’d like to suggest that it’s useful to examine the role that objects and collections play in the establishment and growth of relationships. In the case of the Frontier Fête and Exhibition, these relationships were principally between remote-based AIM staff, metropolitan-based AIM staff and metropolitan-based AIM patrons visiting the exhibition, and then also the ambiguous role of Indigenous people.
To return to my suggestion at the beginning, the analysis of this eclectic collection and its display offers the potential to illustrate a very different representational rationale for the display of Indigenous objects. I think it is one radically different from the usual one which focuses on social progress. It arises from the AIM endeavours to connect the remote to the metropolitan. In this aspect, you can see that this exhibition has more in common with Traeger’s pedal wireless and the Aerial Medical Service than it has with other types of exhibitions. In fact, the exhibition, the radio and the Aerial Medical Service are all about technologies of connection, connecting the remote to the metropolitan. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: by Danielle Wickerman. I am a student with the Museums and Collections course at ANU. White Australians today are accused of appropriating Aboriginal culture to represent ourselves overseas. This seems to me to be quite an early example of that same sort of impulse in that these remote white Australians are appropriating Aboriginal items to show how they’re different from people in the cities. Is that an interpretation that you also see? Does it happen earlier than that as well?
IAN COATES: I think I’m trying to argue a slightly different interpretation that the engagement of the AIM staff in those remote locations is a lot more sophisticated than just trying to appropriate Indigenous representations. They are looking around their community and thinking about what defines this region. And also with the knitted bags - of course we can do this in the absence of any evidence that supports this - one can start to speculate about whether they were created in collaboration with those nurses as a shared activity. So rather than just a simple appropriation, I think there is scope in this collection to see a much more sophisticated reading of people’s engagement in those frontier situations at that time.
I think it is a range of material that is rarely held in museum collections because the rationale for it is very different from the rationale that was driving museums at that time, which was to have representative samples of Aboriginal artefacts from different regions whereas this wasn’t – well, it was and it wasn’t.
QUESTION: by Nicholas Brown. This is not a question; it is an observation but it builds on that same point. In the absence of being able to get really close at the exhibits themselves, what struck me about the assemblage of stuff there was it really didn’t seem to be about appropriation at all; it seemed to be an attempt to give a sense of commonality and space and to show that these are the kinds of resources, handicrafts, geological specimens or whatever that occur in our experience. There didn’t seem to be that sense of ‘here we are working with the natives in a barbarous land trying to do something for the name of God’. It seemed to be an integrated sense of - I’m not sure what. But it’s the ‘not sure what’-ness which was fascinating about your presentation, because it is not the way we think about people presenting their mission to Indigenous Australians.
IAN COATES: You are right. There is a developing body of literature around mission collections, and that puts a lot of stress on the collection of material demonstrating the evangelical success of missionary activities. This is very different partly because the AIM is a bit different anyway but also because it throws up different body material. For example, one of the real highlights in this collection is a goat skin from Mallabula Aboriginal Station in Western Australia, which was one of the first Aboriginal stations set up as a pastoral station for Aboriginal people, and on it they were trying to domesticate goats. I can’t imagine that you would have that kind of object in a museum collection from any other source.
QUESTION: by Fred Myers. I thought it was a very interesting presentation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you basically described the AIM as fundamentally administering to whites at a distance and in a certain sense Aboriginal objects are collected, both sand-flies and pests. I mean, they’re really not the object of this; they’re kind of the local colour of distance and remoteness - neither good nor bad but simply present. How do the AIM collections compare with what came from other Presbyterian missions?
IAN COATES: That was a good question. This is going to be pure speculation but it would depend on what the collection was for. There was certainly arts and crafts manufacture going on at a number of missions, so material acquired that way would be tourist handicrafts and those types of things. But if it had been an early collection, I think it would be similar to some of the material that comes off the Lutheran missions, which is much more representative; whereas this is not a representative collection in any means.
QUESTION: by Peter Stanley. Ian, the material that you showed, was that material left over that wasn’t sold at the fête? Is it possible that there’s lots of other stuff that we don’t see?
IAN COATES: That is a good question - so many questions, so few answers. I suspect that they weren’t selling this material, but then some of that turned wooden stuff starts to fall into a different category. I wouldn’t like to say this is the material that didn’t sell, if that’s what you’re asking.
QUESTION: As a history student I’m interested in the idea of accessibility, because as a student there’s a huge issue in being able to access objects. I just wondered if you had views about that. For instance, I imagine the mining models would be really useful to a number of historians, but it’s actually being able to access the things.
Another observation was that we were discussing primary objects, but nobody brought in any primary objects today - and we’re in a museum. It’s interesting that everything has been seen visually today rather than by actually seeing the object.
MATTHEW CHURCHWARD: I will start off because you did mention the mining models in particular. These models are 150 years old now, so they’re extremely fragile. But in fact in 2001 we travelled the Clunes mining model back up to Clunes for the sesqui-centenary of the discovery of gold at Clunes. It was a very successful sort of community event. I was very in favour of it. Unfortunately, as a result of that some damage was done to the model, although it was probably fairly minor in the context of other damage done over 150 years. The benefit to the local community in having that model back for a short period of time possibly outweighed the minor damage.
In terms of accessing these objects in Museum Victoria, like most of our collections we try to provide access for general researchers where we can, and that includes students, both undergraduate and postgraduate students. But of course resources are pretty tight, so it all comes down to who has the amount of time needed, because it often needs to be supervised access.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: We did actually bring an object here - you’re sitting in it - in that the actual museum is an artefact of representation. So it’s not as though it’s a neutral space.
CRAIG WILCOX: One of the reasons that we enjoy these objects so much is that they are one-offs, and we are the lucky ones who get to see them, to talk about them, to ponder them and, if we’re really lucky and the conservators are good to us, we get to touch them, which is fantastic. But it’s part of living in a world where so much is reproduced so endlessly and so often - almost mind-bogglingly - and we’re talking about things which are pretty rare, pretty spectacular and pretty unusual. That is probably why we’re drawn to them. So as much as we might talk about accessibility, we’re probably secretly happy that they’re not so accessible.
QUESTION: Louise Hamby from ANU. Ian, I think this question’s mainly for you but, if anyone else wants to contribute, that would be great. I was interested in your ending portion about repositioning ethnographic objects into another category and I think you mentioned women’s crafts like the looped bag from the war. I wondered if you would like to elaborate a little bit more on that. But also in relation to that specific looped bag, it is interesting that you hypothesise that maybe this is a result of classes working with Aboriginal women together using wool or whatever, because those same kinds of objects appear in other places and I don’t think they were the result of that kind of activity - I think it was for a different reason. If you elaborate on how you think you could reposition them from that particular exhibition.
IAN COATES: I was trying to suggest a move away from simply thinking about artefacts as being ethnographic and I guess in that is a critique of the concept of the ethnographic in that, once an object is ascribed as being ethnographic, it is almost stripped of its history. It is representative of a particular type of a particular place. Really what I’m looking to do is to re-associate those objects with their histories. Whether it’s a history of it being developed in collaboration with staff at that station or whether we try to re-inscribe those objects as coming from particular people – I am just trying to break away from the standard, ‘Oh, ethnographic artefacts - yes, that’s an Aboriginal object. Yes, that’s from that place. We understand all that.’ I was trying to disrupt that slightly. I would welcome your thoughts about how that bag might relate to other examples that you’re aware of, because that would be very interesting to explore.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Just a brief response to that first question about why we don’t have any objects here today. I considered bringing some of those Snowy objects along but I didn’t for two reasons: firstly, there is a process involved in bringing objects in, which puts quite a workload on our registration staff who are extremely busy out at Mitchell [National Museum of Australia storage facility] at the moment; and, secondly, I think an expanded image of these small objects on the screen is a better way of showing them to a large audience like this. For instance, while it is wonderful to see that Chifley model close up, for most of us here today it would just be a little blob. Yes, it is great to have real objects but for those practical reasons it is not always possible.
MARTHA SEAR: I would like to build on a theme that seems to run through many of the papers, which was that evidence that comes from doing a materials analysis, understanding at that level of what the object is made of, helps us to further understand its meaning and significance. There are a wide range of people within a museum who have something to offer when it comes to understanding objects as evidence. I wondered whether the panel and perhaps the audience might like to reflect on their experiences of working with those conservators or other specialists. What are the ways that we can facilitate and encourage that collaborative approach to understanding material culture within our collection?
IAN COATES: Just taking up my suggestion to Louise, in terms of the string bags from Victoria River Downs there’s an obvious opportunity to look at the actual knitting techniques and tease out those kinds of relationships, but I imagine there’s also the work you did on the coat.
CRAIG WILCOX: Yes, that’s true. It is not that I have the expertise, but the conservators here have phenomenal expertise and their way of looking at things is so impressive. The best thing I have ever read about uniforms was by two Canadian conservators who metaphorically pulled a uniform apart to work out exactly how it was made. It was wonderful, because it told you so much about the person themselves in an indirect way.
MARTHA SEAR: Are there any conservators in the audience who would like to speak about their experience of engaging with objects in this way?
MARK HENDERSON: I work at the National Museum as a conservator. One of the great things is that one always gets to touch objects, which is probably more than many other people. I have always found that working with curators is quite stimulating. As a conservator we are simply looking at the condition of the object and trying to maintain it as best as possible, and curatorial involvement brings a whole spectrum and dimensionality to looking at things.
I am trying to think of an example to describe. We have recently prepared the paintings for the Papunya Painting exhibition. It has been interesting for us to look at the paint systems and also the features that are unique to where the paintings have come from. I don’t know if that gives you a slight insight into what it’s like to do such work, but on behalf of all my workmates I would like to say that collaboration is really important between us and other areas.
IAN COATES: I worked with Mark on the Papunya project. Conservators are looking at things much closer up and more within the grain of the work, I guess; whereas as a curator you’re often dealing with the concept of the work rather than the actual artwork. So when you engage with a conservator over that material you are drawn much more into the work and you gain a much greater appreciation of the work through that collaboration, I must say.
MATTHEW CHURCHWARD: If I could add a bit to the discussion here: one thing that strikes me with a lot of these social history collections is that we don’t do a lot of scientific analysis. The little bit that we do do is in the context of conservation work when we’re trying to determine what something is made of so that we can then work out how to treat it.
I was really impressed with Erika’s talk about the wool samples and how you could bring modern scientific methods to understand more about objects. For example, I would love to find out a bit more about some of the timbers that Nordstrom used in his models or the other artefacts that I’ve been working with, if only I had access to a scientist who could tell me what species these timbers came from. Perhaps there are some opportunities there. I know in archaeology they do these things a lot more, so perhaps we are not accessing the right experts and the right techniques. There’s probably a lot more to be discovered there.
Although the converse of that is sometimes it doesn’t perhaps tell you much. I liked Craig’s example about how he could have analysed the fabric of the coat but it probably wouldn’t have told him much because it is just a coat and you have to have the context. But perhaps if you went and looked at all the colonial military uniforms in Australian museums that have survived and analysed them all as a collaborative project, that would be really interesting.
CRAIG WILCOX: That would tell us something. That would be good.
QUESTION: by Graeme Davison. I would just like to contribute to this discussion about interpreters and conservators. I recently had a very fascinating afternoon at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where, thanks to Kevin Fewster, I was shown the horological collection. I discovered when I was there that in fact the conservators and the historians are one and the same - the same people who maintain the clocks are the people who do the interpretation. So they are highly proficient historians of science who also know how to maintain these extremely delicate objects. They would argue that the two processes are absolutely intrinsically joined: that to be able to understand the science and understand the mechanics and to know how the materials are to be looked after are all one and the same process. I don’t think the same process will apply in every context, but it was a principle that I thought was perhaps worth at least thinking about in other museum contexts.
MARTHA SEAR: Thank you. We might finish up the session there.
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Date published: 11 September 2008