Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: Queensland Art Gallery

Some memories of working at the Old Museum

I started work in the Old Museum in the entomology section in February 1982 and so had four years there until we moved in 1986.

I had visited as a young kid and always wanted the keys to the insect display cases. So I achieved one of my childhood ambitions. Many of these insect displays had been done by Henry Hacker in the early twentieth century and had not changed. There were some modern panels in the old cases but not many. The old displays had canvas covers to exclude the light, which you lifted to look at them. These were later removed. The cases were beautiful cedar, with turned legs and angled panes of old glass on each viewing side. The displays were on angled, paper-covered pine boards with old, specially printed labels on grey card (done by the Government Printer) and the insect specimens were pinned directly into the hoop pine through the white paper. There were many interesting life histories and rare specimens but time had faded them. When the move came we kept the specimens but could not store the whole displays.

Some fish were displayed in similar cedar cases. The fish were hand-painted plaster casts. I remember being on the display floor with other staff, when a nearby young girl suddenly burst into giggles. The education officer calmly said “Ah! She’s found it”. There was a biro nib sticking out of the mouth of a parrot fish.

By that time the Queensland Art Gallery had moved out and QM staff had filled every nook and cranny of the buildings and out buildings. Admin was in a demountable, as was conservation, while history and technology was in some of the big sheds.

Art and display staff were mainly in the old concert hall where the art gallery had been. Melba had sung there in the past and it was where the city hall organ was originally installed. We could go up the grand stairway to where archaeology and ethnology collections and staff were housed. Sometimes I even went up into the towers. Now all this is deemed unsafe and off limits.

Curatorial staff were mainly in the basement, entered round the back. There was one toilet for each gender, way into the bowels of the building near the earth basement.

The wonderful library had spilled out of its main room down the long, high-ceilinged corridors and I passed old books like The Pears of New York and early hand-coloured insect publications on my way to my desk.

There was no air conditioning and the west wall heated up like an oven in summer. The concrete floors were cold in winter too. The entomology room at the end of that long book-lined corridor had staff crammed in among the lovely old cabinets with a strong smell of naphthalene. There was a big white, arched, drop-sash window at the end of the room away from me and my boss.

In spring the gardens were a delight, with wonderful hedges of jasmine, beds of Iceland poppies, pansies, stocks and roses. We used to take our morning tea out to enjoy there on nice days. During the Ekka the noise of people on the rides was a constant background. We felt privileged with free parking in the middle of it all.

The switch board was a plug-in manual type and there were constant PA announcements when the receptionist couldn’t find someone at their desk. There was a big typing pool of women typists, as there were no computers and curators spent a lot of time writing letters, long hand, which were then typed, checked, signed and the pink carbon copy filed.

The staff was relatively small and I often ate lunch with the then director and other senior staff but that was always inside, at a big old pine table. As a whole, the staff were an amazing bunch of talented, friendly people, with the most incredible range of knowledge and skills (as is still the case). There were conflicts but generally it was a happy place and the amount of work done was prodigious. Filling the whole new museum with displays was a massive job. I remember volunteering to help with whale construction one weekend. I think I helped glue on cast barnacles.

One Friday afternoon, 18 January 1985, there was a huge hail storm. It was after 4.00 pm and many staff had gone home. I remember grabbing old books off bookshelves in the late Patricia Mather’s office, as water started to pour down the walls. I don’t recall any damage to the precious books but it was a near-run thing. Other staff were trapped higher up in the building, as about 360 panes of glass were smashed by the hail and shards of glass flew everywhere. Some shards like daggers were later found embedded vertically in the old pine stairs. When I went to my car the back windscreen was smashed, there was extensive panel damage and a foot of water and ice round the pedals.

A special highlight was the day the machinery restoration team fired up the Garrett traction engine for the first time. The brightly painted engine, sounding its whistle and trundling round the bitumen drives was unforgettable, as was the pleased-as-punch face of the chief restorer. [link]

One time, to the surprise of all, a noisy pitta turned up in the museum garden and took up residence for quite a while.

The move to the Cultural Centre was a huge job. My fellow insect technician, the late Gudrun Sarnes, and I moved 1,000 drawers of insects in the back of a Toyota Hi-Ace van, driving very slowly on many trips. Not a specimen was damaged.

I went on my first trip to Europe in 1986 but returned just in time for the final staff party at the old building. It was a lovely gathering with past and present staff all enjoying the side verandah. I still miss things about the old place.

Glad the gardens survived

I’m from a Brisbane family and we visited throughout the 1970s. The glass cases stand out in my memory, and also the garden. I’m here with the Ekka—it’s great the gardens survived and weren’t hacked about with all the different uses since the museum left.

A note from the editor: Elizabeth Gillespie told this story to Margie Barram at the Australian Garden History Society display at the Ekka.

The destination for that year

I live near Gatton, visiting the old museum building today (Sunday 7 August) as I’m here for the Ekka. I went to school in Gatton in the 1960s. Once a year we came in to Brisbane on a school trip, visiting a different place each year. Places included the Arnott’s factory (we were given samples!), the Golden Circle factory and the airport. One year our destination was the museum—we had a day out in the building and the grounds.

A note from the editor: Katherine Raymont told this story to Margie Barram at the Australian Garden History Society display at the Ekka.

Art competition

I only remember going into the museum once when I was in primary school. I actually had a piece of my own art work displayed in the museum and I went along to see the display. From memory, a competition was held throughout the schools in Queensland, to artistically present a story. Everyone in our class at school was required to enter the competition. It might have been organised by the newspaper—I don’t remember all the details about it.

But I do remember that my entry was judged in the top 100 of all the artwork entered, and my parents took me along to see my painting hanging in the museum, along with the other 99. It was really quite exciting, and I was disappointed to find out later that it was being closed.

I think of this every time I pass this beautiful building. So pleased it hasn’t been pulled down.

The gardeners

The Old Museum gardens are unique amongst Queensland’s institutional and public gardens in having a gardens maintenance and support area still on site and in operation. This area includes propagation facilities and potting tables, shade houses, compost facilities, and gardener’s storage and facilities building. This is a rare occurrence in Australia and an area that should be highly valued and kept intact and in operation.

Through the 20th century, the gardens had its own gardeners who were based at the gardens and worked from their yard and the bush house there. As well as maintaining the gardens and lawns, they propagated all the plants used for the seasonal changing displays in the beds. It should also be noted that there were generally not generous or even sufficient funds for the gardeners to undertake all they would have liked to do for the gardens. The lack of funds for new plants led from the early part of the 20th century to the gardeners collecting seed from their plants, taking cuttings and propagating and growing on the plants to meet the different garden beds displays. These gardening practices and traditions involved a considerable amount of work for the gardening staff.

It seems highly likely that the primary reasons these gardens remained generally intact and one of the finest gardens in Brisbane through the 20th century was the continuity of the gardeners, their attachment to this special place, the practices they passed on to the following gardeners, and the lack of funds to generate changes and extensive plant changes.

All the gardeners at the Old Museum Gardens were not recorded in the past studies. It would be wonderful to complete the list. Gardeners included: Ray Priest, Dave Dowdless from 1966, Col Harmon (who had been the head gardener at the Yungaba Migrant Centre, and retired in 1970), David Hockings there from 1970, Jack Kennedy head gardener, who passed on to Ted (Dude) Neilsen there from 1966 to 1979 and head gardener for 5 years, and John England.

In 1989 and 2000 when I was part of the team preparing the Old Museum Gardens conservation study I met the gardeners who were still working in the gardens, and contacted a couple of the retired gardeners. Col Harmon told me of the gingko tree that used to grow near the entrance to the bush house. It was 10 to 14 metres high and an original planting in the list of plants at the place prepared by Frederick Manson Bailey, the Queensland government botanist at the turn of the century.

Ted Neilsen recalled the large Moreton Bay fig tree which grew just near the lawn near the corner of the old fernery, the fishpond, and the round garden under the present demountable building. He also told of the seed beds being in the open where the spirit store building is now, and recalled the fine garden along there comprising a hedge along the fence, a line of alternating frangipani trees and palms with annuals displayed along the garden frontage. He had tended the historical beds of annuals removed for the dinosaurs, and the roses. He told me that “dozens came daily just to look at the roses”.

John England told me about the paths always being asphalt with tile drains or a raised timber edge, that he planted the macadamia tree in the lower garden, the bougainvillea hedge near the potting shed was “always there”, and there were two timber slatted ferneries—one open to the public—and much more about the gardens and the plants now gone but which were there through his time as gardener in this very special place in Brisbane.

The gardeners' work area, November 2013

The gardeners’ work area, November 2013

Marcel Duchamp at the Queensland Art Gallery

I dimly remember visiting the Queensland Art Gallery at Bowen Hills in the 1950s, but my strongest memory is from a little later. As high-school students in July 1968 Bev Parrish and I went to the gallery to see a Marcel Duchamp exhibition.

I think I already knew about Duchamp’s 1913 classic modernist paint­ing Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, with its references to Eadweard Muy­bridge’s sequence of photographs Woman walking downstairs. And I knew that Duchamp had caused a fracas when he tried to exhibit an ordinary porcelain urinal, with the title Fountain in New York in 1917. But that’s about all I knew about him.

I thought the exhibition at the art gallery was terrific. I don’t remember where the exhibits came from, and I don’t recall a catalog—I certainly didn’t buy one, though there could have been one available but beyond my budget. Many readymades were included. These were recent reproductions, produced in limited editions au­thor­ised by the artist. I have fond memories of these in particular:

  • Fountain—the porcelain urinal
  • Fresh widow—a model of a pair of French doors fitted with black curtains
  • 50cc of Paris air—a glass ampoule filled (we were told) with air from Paris
  • With hidden noise—a ball of string captured between brass plates, containing a small loose object (of undisclosed identity) which made a noise when the object was shaken (or so we were told)
  • Why not sneeze, Rose Sélavy—a little bird cage, containing marble blocks in the shape of sugar cubes—I think this was my favourite

These items were full of stories, jokes, multi-lingual puns, and cultural ref­er­ences—a marvelous delight for a schoolboy in the backwater that was Brisbane in the 1960s.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. SFMOMA

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. SFMOMA

Dame Nellie Melba

My maternal grandmother saw Nellie Melba sing at the old Exhibition Building Hall. I was a child when she told me about it. I think we had gone to the Art Gallery, then in that building, and she was explaining how it had changed. She loved singing and was in the old State and Municipal Choir and had great admiration for the then conductor a Mr Sampson who was also, if I remember, the organist at St John’s Cathedral.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Hannah Gartside and she lived in Gregory Terrace in a house called Preston Villa (now long demolished) but it was more or less opposite the Centenary Pool. Her grandparents lived a couple doors along in a house called Daisy Nook, also gone I think; another member of the family lived close by also.

The Gartside family were gunsmiths and had a successful business in town (Gartside and Sons). Their neighbours were the Miss Watsons whose front fence still survives but the site is now a motel.

I’ll have to check when my grandmother was born. Her father was an engineer in Queensland Railways, well respected, and her father was credited with designing the Normanton Railway Station and the first Kuranda Station.   He worked on that railway when the government had to resume control. There was a model in the old museum which my grandmother would show me. He also did work at Cooktown and must have been involved with the Cooktown to Laura railway line.

James Gartside also became Lt Colonel of the Moreton Regiment but died young of a brain tumour. There is a quite grand obelisk in Toowong Cemetery erected by public subscription.

Hannah’s mother was Miriam Costin and that family came to Brisbane in 1840s or even earlier. Later one Costin became Clerk of Parliament.

My grandmother as a young woman would accompany her father to the Easter Encampments as her mother wouldn’t go. I think my grandmother enjoyed the attention she received being the Colonel’s daughter. There must have been a dress-up dance of some kind.   I’ll have to check my grandmother’s date of birth and when she started at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar which of course was just up the road.

Unfortunately I don’t know anything more about Nellie Melba in Brisbane.

A note from the editor:

The internationally-celebrated Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) performed in five seasons in the exhibition concert hall—in October 1902, June 1909, August 1909, May 1922, and June-July 1927. The performances were described in the newspapers in lavish detail. Here is part of a typical article:

Melba’s farewell concert will be a night to be remembered by many, for the Exhibition Concert Hall was thronged to overflowing, and long before the opening time a crowd had been patiently waiting tor admission. The body of the hall and the galleries were taxed to the utmost, while on the stage and at each side of the organ accommodation was also provided for music lovers. The Diva received an ovation as she appeared on the stage in a creation by Worth of pale shell pink georgette, fashioned with straight-lined back, and pouched and draped front. At the low set waistline in the front appeared elaborate embroideries in crystal and diamante, from beneath which fell a drape of powder blue, drawn to the right side, and falling below the hemline. Diamante clasps caught the filmy sleeves, and round her shoulders the singer wore a scarf of misty pink tulle. A diamond tiara and glittering diamante shoes completed her toilette, while Melba wore her most-magnificent jewels, comprising diamond rings and bracelets, ropes of pearls, and a long slender chain of platinum-set diamonds, from which hung a sapphire pendant.

At the close of her first group of songs, and, again, later in the programme, Dame Nellie received quantities of floral gifts. Among them was a sheaf of poinsettia and spikes of gladiolus toning from palest lemon to deep red, mounted on a pedestal, the base of which was hidden in blossoming banksia and roses. From the Lyceum Club was a bouquet of pink roses and sweet peas set in powder blue tulle, and tied with blue ribbons, and other floral gifts were a sheaf of arum lilies, and bouquets of Iceland poppies, gerberas, roses, and sweet peas.

—“Melba’s farewell: gala night at exhibition”, Brisbane Courier, 14 June 1927. (The article went on to name many dozens of worthy and notable Queenslanders who were in the audience).

At her final farewell concert in Brisbane, on the evening of Thursday 7 July 1927, the performance was broadcast live on radio station 4QG. Here is a newspaper report:.

It was the first time in her wonderfully successful career that a whole concert given by Dame Melba was broadcast. The information that the  concert would be broadcast had been wired to other States, and New Zealand, and it is possible that between two and three million persons listened-in to the concert.

During the evening, Dame Melba spoke into the microphone, and said she hoped the listeners had had as much pleasure in listening to her as she had had in broadcasting the concert.

Responding to numerous requests by letter, Dame Melba sang two old favorites, “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” and “Hame Sweet Hame.”

—“Melba concert broadcast”, Daily Mercury (Mackay), 8 July 1927.

Here are recordings of the voice of Nellie Melba as she sings those two favourites. First, “Comin’ through the rye”, recorded in New York in 1913. We hear an original disc played on a 78rpm gramophone to evoke the experience many of her fans enjoyed. [source]

 

And here she is singing “Home, sweet home.” This recording has been digitally processed to remove some of the hiss and crackle.

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