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Delving into our collection in search of objects for a forthcoming display in the Museum’s Atrium, I was unexpectedly waylaid – and enthralled – by the uncommon life of entertainer Herbert Browne (1895–1975).

Acquired via his children, the Museum holds a trove of objects offering insight into Browne’s absorbing adventures, both onstage and offstage. One that caught my eye is a gorgeous Tivoli theatre program from December 1921. It marked 100 years this month since Browne’s debut on the Australian stage.

Actor and collector

During the first half of the 20th century, musical theatre was one strand of a Western popular aesthetic that upheld Chinese and other Asian cultures as exotic and foreign. Elaborate sets, ostentatious costumes and props, and bold make-up magnified the visual impact.

A small red lacquered tray with floral decoration.

Tray formerly used and displayed in Herbert Browne’s Essendon home

It is possible that the ornaments, lacquerware, cocktail glasses, incense and gongs now in the Museum’s collection originally came from JC Williamson’s prop department.

Browne was also interested in First Nations culture. During the 1920s JC Williamson toured to Perth aboard the Trans-Australian Railway. During their travels the company met with controversial author Daisy Bates at Ooldea where Browne acquired several spears, boomerangs and spear throwers.

Spear thrower with carvings and fibre on hand grip.

Spear thrower acquired by Herbert Browne

As he aged Browne remained committed to the theatre, establishing a stage make-up business before his death in 1975.

Keep an eye out for an object from Browne’s collection on display in the Gandel Atrium early next year.

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