Museums & Galleries Qld

Archive for October 2012

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A different experience – Living History

America is an amazing place, not least of all for the level of service you receive, and not just in the restaurants. In almost every museum, National Park and living history offering I have visited, I can safely say they looked happy to meet me. The volunteers and staff alike are welcoming and informative. And this attitude seems to underpin their approach to interpretation – personal.

Docent (volunteer) led tours and Ranger talks appear to be a fairly standard offering for cultural heritage destinations here. And they are great! Largely well delivered, they engage adults and children alike. Character actors add an extra dimension to understanding both the historical context of the past and the experiences of individuals. This can be a powerful tool in transmitting history in an engaging way. At the California State Railroad Museum, they offer school kids a tour where the history of rail in California comes alive … the foreman directing workers (children aka 19th century Chinese labourers) building the first rail line across the Sierra Nevada to go faster, the ceremonial nailing of the last spike on the Trans-continental Railroad and the fatigue of a traveller (which I must say right now I can empathise with!) … all make the past real. To watch kids almost running to make sure they keep up with the museum guide and eagerly putting up their hands to make sure they get a turn of taking part in the “past” is a wonderful thing to see and really emphasises the power of “interactive” learning.

Colonial Williamsburg, recognised as the masters of this form of interpretation, are, well, the masters. The experiential side of standing in a parlour conversing with someone from the 18th century had adults and children alike completely immersed. And to see an impromptu revival meeting where a “slave” had 21st century visitors singing and clapping for 20 minutes in the street really emphasises the terms interactive and engaged! This is not achieved by accident. An enormous amount of effort goes into developing offerings, ensuring historical accuracy, training staff and monitoring quality. And it works.

However, not having access to actors doesn’t preclude personal interpretation. No-one should underestimate the value of a good story, well told, when it is based in historical fact. I have seen volunteer led tours that have kept visitors entranced for 2 or more hours. The most spectacular was at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where we were literally spellbound by our guide for 3 ½ hours (I’d never have believed someone could keep the attention of a group of nearly 30 people for that long if hadn’t seen it myself). But in many smaller destination, railway museums and historical sites alike, these tours and Ranger talks greatly enhance the visitors’ experience.

Like the living history actors, effective tours are a lot of work to set up, requiring careful research, training and monitoring. But if you do have interested volunteers, well-presented tours offer a cost-effective alternative to the sometimes expensive option of preparing interpretive panels. For the time and effort of setting up a programme you can provide visitors with a look at the past that can very effectively weave together historical context and individual experiences in the past. This may not be the clean and bright presentation of nice panels, but it is a highly successful means of interpreting collections and heritage sites. And, when it comes down to it, I think that is what we aim for in museums – that we can see visitors enjoy the people and the everyday pieces of the past.

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ACCESS ALL AREAS: Chicago History Museum

Let’s get this out of the way, Chicago isn’t cold and windy.  It’s very, very cold and windy!  But at least now I can blame my crazy hair on the wind and no-one here has to know that it looks like this most of the time.

My Fellowship at the Chicago History Museum (CHM) is exceeding expectations, with staff from all areas of expertise taking time out to discuss their role here including achievements and issues they face.  It’s reassuring to know that many of these issues are faced by museums big and small around the world.

So far I have met with executive staff as well as curatorial, conservation, exhibitions, social media and the education team, and been initiated into the world of Chicago by trying a Chicago-style hotdog.  Which, by the way, are delicious.

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Highlights so far

Dioramas are popular!  Who would have thought?  One gallery in the museum has a number of dioramas featuring Chicago.  During recent renovations they were fitted out in a specially-designed gallery with new interpretation and every time I pass this space it is packed with visitors.

Audio tours aren’t supposed to be funny, are they?  I’ll admit it, I’ve never been a fan of the audio tour, having found most boring and monotonous, but at CHM two amazing audio tours are on offer. One has been produced by local high school students who also provide the narration and the other by comedians from a local comedy club which had me laughing like a crazy person as I walked around the Chicago Crossroads exhibition.

Excitement is building.  Staff are preparing for a new exhibition called Shalom Chicago and every department is involved in some way, so I am able to see the progress from different viewpoints.

The collections, exhibitions and programs reflect different Chicago communities.  CHM are following a very logical, but often skipped, process of working with their various communities.  They do not mount an exhibition and invite the community to come and see it, but instead consult and engage from the outset.  This process has led to different cultures being introduced to the museum environment and the donation of more important objects which will help shape and increase the significance of the collection.


BRONWYN ROPER is the Queensland Museum’s Museum Development Officer for Central Queensland.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

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Sandra Morgan and Robyn Hofmeyr travelled to North Stradbroke Island on the 28th of September as part of a Museum exchange with Elizabeth Gondwe at the North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum (NSIHM). Elizabeth had invited Sandra  and Robyn to talk at their Museum’s AGM on the 29th of September. Sandra had never been to Stradbroke Island – despite having spent most of her life in South East Queensland and having relatives on the Island. There is a strong historical link between Cherbourg and Stradbroke as many Aborigines were moved between the two places during the years of the Aboriginal Protection Act.

The Museum on Stradbroke seeks to accommodate and reflect the diversity of the Island. The Pioneer room, the Aboriginal room as well as the current Whale exhibition all tell different stories of life on the Island. We were impressed with their storage facilities, cataloging, archiving system and database. For various reasons, this one aspect of the Ration Shed Museum in Cherbourg is still way behind and needs a lot more effort and attention. Elizabeth kindly offered to assist us with this.

We were surprised (and envious!) to learn that the Stradbroke Museum receives operational funding from the local Redland Council. At the Ration Shed Museum we receive no core government support for running costs and rely on visitors, tourists and various government grants to keep us going. Balancing our books is a constant struggle – as it is with so many of the museums in our country. Seeing the Stradbroke Museum gave us cause for hope.

On the day of the AGM, we were overjoyed when at the end of our talk the members of the Museum suggested that they hire a bus and visit the Ration Shed Museum in Cherbourg. Councillor Craig Ogilvie and Councillor Paul Bishop who both attended the AGM are clearly big supporters and champions of the North Stradbroke Island Museum.

The Ration Shed Museum look forward to building an on-going relationship with the North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum and the communities it reflects.


ROBYN HOFMEYR is a Coordinator/Filmmaker/Educator at the Ration Shed Museum, Cherbourg. She is undertaking a Co-Mentorship | Exchange with Elisabeth Gondwe, Curator/Ethnographer at the North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

Conservation and Restoration

When it comes to decisions about conservation and restoration, the approach seems to be that it’s better to be canny and careful and not rush into things. Like most places, in the US it appears that there are some diverse views on how objects should be presented and what constitutes an appropriate degree of intervention.

Last week I talked about the drive to improve the care of big things, rolling stock in particular, by ensuring it is at least under cover and where feasible in a controlled environment. Once you have the rolling stock inside, the next question becomes how do you care for it – do you stabilise and conserve, cosmetically restore, or return to operating condition, with all the alterations from original that might entail? There is plenty of scope for a range of decisions to be made and it’s not always black and white – there is any numbers of positions between stabilisation and full restoration.  And these decisions are equally as difficult whether it be for a locomotive, an aeroplane, a boat or a building.

The discussion about restoration seems to centre on two things – intent and methodology. Under the banner of intent is authenticity in restoration – understanding what’s been done to historic objects in the past (sometimes not so good), and thinking through the decision – when to restore and when to conserve. People here have been asking questions like “What are you trying to show an audience?”, “What is significant about the object?” and “Does this have some bearing on how and why you conserve, restore or operate?” In thinking about how restoration proceeds, people are giving attention to details such as authentic colour, configuration, materials and traditional methods. Restoration is often to a specific era, not always “as it came off the line”. But whichever “era” you choose, the decision to restore begs the question of whether, if it’s not stabilised in the current condition and configuration, then are you not erasing some of the history?

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Another challenge is what can be considered authentic – is a building or carriage that only has original foundations really a restored object or a reconstruction/reproduction. Is it like Grandad’s axe with four new heads and seven new handles, effectively a facsimile of the original object? And does that matter? Sometimes it may be that this is the only way that we can hope to see what a unique carriage would have looked like. But in every reconstruction, we make decisions today that take liberties with originality.

I don’t know what the answer to this dilemma is. In a number of places I’ve visited the approach has been meticulous research on the history of the object; attention to the technology, fabric and material changes to the object; the use of traditional methods, especially in building restoration; careful documentation of every step of the process; and clear delineation between original and new/replacement parts. There are a number of on-line resources museums here go that, while not specifically related to transport objects, are very useful and these include: and

In some places, rolling stock is being presented in original conditions. Which leads to another question, especially in the environment of limited funding where priorities have to be assigned to restoration, which is: when is it ok not to restore? Personally, I sometimes feel that the original condition, with stabilisation to ensure the longevity of the object, gives a feeling of authenticity that no degree of restoration can match. However, it is as much the experience of hearing steam, feeling a loco move, smelling the fuel, and seeing the grandeur of a shiny loco that contributes to people’s engagement with the stories, technologies and significance of big things. So many people marvel over the real thing and it’s clear that the capacity to achieve that awe and wonder, the appreciation of the “romance” of transport in the past, is important. This was made abundantly clear this week at the California State Railroad Museum where they marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Union Pacific railroad. The large event included train rides in historical carriages, opportunities to climb into locos and an array of beautifully restored rolling stock out on public display. The crowds were phenomenal, the excitement of little kids marvellous to see, and there was a depth of engagement for many visitors. I also visited a live steam event at Railtown 1897 this week, and the enjoyment of the physical experience of an operating steam railway was palpable amongst visitors. These two events were a timely reminder of the wonder big things can induce.

So what is the answer? I don’t know, but it seems like to be canny and careful, understand your object, its history and significance, to carefully adhere to conservation standards including documentation, and identification, reversible changes and so on and to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the conservation/restoration, what your objectives are, all important facets in a well-considered decision.


GERALDINE MATE is the Senior Curator, Transport and Energy at The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich, a campus of the Queensland Museum.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

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