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From flat things big things grow!

Elspeth Wishart, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

PETER STANLEY: Well, moving on to another Wishart, and that’s Elspeth from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, who will talk about ‘From Flat Things Big Things Grow’. Elspeth, over to you.

ELSPETH WISHART: Thank you to the National Museum for providing this opportunity. The dilemma of all museum curators is how to make their collections accessible, and particularly in regard to exhibitions it’s important to find that hook or tangible point that gets the visitor interested.

Usually this can be done by a significant object that immediately grabs people’s curiosity and draws them closer, enveloping them in the greater story. What happens when that object has a number of constraints? In this particular case it is flat, two dimensional and therefore doesn’t necessarily stand out. It’s fragile, sensitive to light, two-sided and requires climate control.

How can one draw the visitor to this two-dimensional item within an exhibition and create a multi-dimensional experience?

I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight two items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery that have these characteristics. I’ll provide a brief outline about the artefacts and their individual stories and how we’ve dealt with them previously and where we hope to go in the future.

Both are quite distinctive objects but have similar problems that challenge our interpretive approach in bringing them to an exhibition. I don’t necessarily have an answer, and certainly ask you to share your experiences if you have any known examples that we could learn from.

Two significant objects, both have strong stories to tell. One a letter, the other a flag.

Firstly, a letter, penned by a scribe in 1843 for the illiterate James Walsh, a farm labourer of County Tipperary to his convict wife, Mary Walsh, recently transported to Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. Despite strong petitions from her husband and the local businessmen and clergy, Mary was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing a piece of cashmere.

Mary was 30 years old. Her daughter, nearly two when they reached Van Diemen’s Land. Mary’s conduct record states that she behaved well on the journey out.

On arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, Mary is recorded as a housemaid who could wash. She could read but not write. She states that she is married, She has three children, husband in Tipperary and she has a Temperance medal. Exactly two months after her arrival in Hobart, little Mary was placed in the Queen’s Orphan School. She died in the hospital there, two years later, of ‘inflammation of the lungs’.

James’s letter, written in July to his wife, was in response to her’s four months earlier. It appears by the time that James’ letter arrived Mary had been reassigned and had moved on to a new address. We do not know if she ever received it. It’s a letter that displays deep emotion from a husband left behind in Ireland, responsible for their two sons, who laments the loss of his wife and pleads for some way to be united with her. [Image shown] I’ll leave those quotes for you to browse over.

The letter bears little of the creases one would think if it was clasped to the heart and read daily. Did Mary ever receive her love letter? Did James ever see his wife again? The correspondence took place just before the great Irish famine swept Ireland. We do not know if Mary’s family survived or rest as unknown victims. We do not know if they were ever reunited.

Other than the isolated report of insolence, for which Mary received a reprimand, Mary’s conduct was good. And this saw her recommended for a conditional pardon, receiving a Free Certificate in 1849. Her life is silent from here.

The letter provides an insight into the impact that transportation had on families. It helps us to connect with our past on a level that is personal and emotive. It provides a valuable and significant key object to start a dialogue and engage with a visitor on a range of emotive levels.

The second object, a Red Cross flag from Gallipoli with 515 signatures on the back of the flag. It’s made of wool bunting, measures nearly 1.5 metres square and has a number of creases from past storage. To understand the flag and its story we need to go back to 1915 to Huonville, a small orcharding community south of Hobart.

Harry Baily writes in his diary:

My sister says if she was a boy she would sign on for the war. I told her she ought to go as a nurse, she said she could not stand to see the crippled soldiers. I told her if she does not intend going she ought to be quiet about it. I said I would go only, I stayed for mother’s sake.

Despite his mother’s opposition Baily enlisted in the Armed forces in March 1915, joining the Australian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher-bearer.

Baily would have preferred to be in the front line, but was placed in the Seventh Field Ambulance, because his large frame would enable him to carry wounded men over his shoulder. By September that year he was on the battlefields of Gallipoli at Sari Bair where the ANZACs suffered large casualties. Baily himself became one at Hill 971 on which the Red Cross flag flew. Two days before the evacuation Baily discovered he had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his hip. He had thought it a boil. Without convalescence after the removal, he battled on to the end evacuating his field hospital, despite a head cold and dysentery as well.

Baily and his mate Bill Mawby were the last to leave:

I told Bill I did not think I’d be able to walk the distance My Back was terrible bad. Bill wrapped the Redcross flag around my back a[nd] gave me support.

The flag is a strong symbol of the battle and comradeship and experiences of Gallipoli. It’s a symbol of one individual’s story of a war that he was reluctant to tell. Only on his deathbed in 1979 did he urge his family to promise that they would ensure this precious flag and belongings that he never spoke of would be entrusted to a museum.

Not only did the Museum acquire the flag but also Baily’s diaries, photos, souvenirs, including the large piece of shrapnel dug out of his hip, not to mention a Turkish grenade. All these items he collected on his travels.

His diaries cover the period from 1915-1919, with their brief daily entries, describing with an honesty and frankness his day-to-day activities and thoughts. The constant shelling, the impending winter on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Also life in the bases in England and the meeting, courtship and marrying of the widow Lorna.

Unlike Mary Walsh, we do know the story of Baily. He returned to Australia in 1919. By 1929 he’d established his motor garage in Devonport and resided there with his family until his death.

The flag itself is an interesting document in the recording of the signatures. Not only can we learn of Baily but of the 515 people he encountered during his time serving his country.

How do we tell these stories? Do they speak for themselves? What innovative approach can we take to bring them to life in an exhibition? So far the letter has been on display a handful of times. Usually displayed fairly traditionally in a display case, mounted in acid-free board and Mylar with a photographic reproduction of the other side. A transcript of the letter has also been placed alongside. And on a couple of occasions an Irish male voice has forlornly read the words.

No other object specifically relates to Mary Walsh, but it can be used as a pivotal object in stimulating discussion about the recent and ongoing research on female convicts. It is also a special opportunity to highlight an individual female convict’s story.

Once again the few times the flag has been displayed it has been fairly conservative. Due to its size and fragility it has required a purpose-built case and has been supported by the diaries, transcript extracts and other memorabilia.

The flag itself has undergone some research. A database has been developed of the names, signatures, their ranks, associations, and that’s now available on our website.

The flag has the potential to link a whole series of service men and women to track their war service record and find out how their paths crossed.

A small number of detailed profiles have been researched as a start to understanding the project. It also begins to bring those signatures to life as well. These will also be added to the website at a later stage.

The research to date and ongoing research will all contribute to the interpretation potential of both the letter and the flag. There is no doubt that the stories are emotive and connect with the public. The stories are multi-dimensional and bring to life these two-dimensional fragile objects.

With computers, through the web, and with technology in the galleries we are able to provide a constant display or interpretation of the items. However, it is essential that we do not forget the original object, as that is what museums are all about.

In this case we must be aware of the sensitive nature of the artefacts and respect that if these are to be preserved for the future we must be imaginative in their display so that we can provide rest periods away from display conditions.

With technology it is often easy for the object to disappear or be displaced. Are we displaying the object or the story that links to a real thing? I think both. The real object makes it a stronger story.

The reality, despite public demand, is that these items cannot be on permanent display, and we need to extend our means and imagination in bringing the multi-dimensional stories to the forefront. Thank you.

I might say I left out a bit: that with the convict letter we’ve been doing a project with the University in partnership with their honours students. We’ve had some creative writing students writing the ending of the Mary Walsh story. Which, although not historical, has provided quite a stimulating discussion and kept it in the forefront of the public, resulting in storytelling episodes at the museum. So that’s another avenue we’ve taken.

QUESTION: by Jeff Brownrigg (?) again. Sorry to hold you up, in the photograph from his collection that’s the flag, is it?

ELSPETH WISHART: Yes, flying on the hill. That’s flying on the Hill 971 where he was injured and evacuated. So that flag was actually wrapped around his body by his mate, and he kept it with him for the rest of the war. Yes, he just collected signatures.

QUESTION: Tremendous stuff. It’s lovely stuff.

ELSPETH WISHART: It’s a beautiful story but difficult to display.

Date published: 11 May 2009