Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: Gardens (page 1 of 2)

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.

Gran’s day out

I love writing stories, and found it a little hard to pick just one that relates to the museum.

We were always visitors to Brisbane. Each year in the humid school holidays at Xmas we would drive the long dusty highway to visit Gran.

My grandmother lived in a cottage in East Brisbane, and for some reason she would take most of us (four girls in our family and four boy cousins) to the museum for the day. Like going to the pictures, Gran would bring a large bottle of cordial, a packet of bikkies and some sandwiches.

As a small girl it always seemed such a journey—I guess there was the bus from East Brisbane to the Valley, and then another bus up the hill to the door, or maybe it was still a tram.

There were two main memories, the first was being lost in the cavernous halls full of mystery, and the second was lunch out in the elegant gardens. We had nothing like this building in Canberra.

When I returned to Brisbane with my own three children, realising that the museum had moved, I took them all eagerly to South Bank. They didn’t have any expectation, but I apologised to them on the way in. I had built this trip up to be an adventure, a museum of natural history, a place of caverns, stair wells and being lost. It was too clean, too organised. We have become used to it now, but I wish they had the opportunity to know the old museum.

(the photo was from the time, but not from the museum)

Alannah

Our childhood memories of a special place

My earliest childhood memories are so very special to me and all my siblings. We grew up in the early 1950s around the Lota–Wynnum area. My dad built our house at Lota when there were only a very few people in the area. We first lived at Allister Street Lota  in the small two-bedroom house that is still standing to this day. Each fortnight my dad would add a little more to the house, as money was hard to come by and building materials were very dear.

We were a poor family, but very rich in love. My mum had a large family—eventually there were 12 of us kids, three boys and nine girls, but the other two boys were the babies of the family, so our brother was third in line after two sisters and then the rest of us girls down to the twin boys, so he had a lot to contend with. We were always happy and got along just fine. Our outings were very special to us because of where we were taken and it was usually on a Sunday. A lovely train ride from Lota, or Wynnum where we lived later, to the beautiful palace that was ours. That is what we had in our hearts and minds: that the beautiful museum building in the Valley was ours alone.

What fantasies we created. It was our palace—running from floor to floor lifting the brown covers that were over a lot of the glass topped display cabinets to reveal another fascinating specimen—the wonderful skeletons and exotic collections from faraway lands—the magnificent lions and tigers at the front desk—our minds went wild with imagination—then the big lung fish out on the beautiful verandah. This was our special place—we each imagined that parts of that glorious building was our “home” and we would go and visit our brother and sisters in their part of this “palace”.

Mum would always take a packed lunch for us all and then we would sit in the beautiful gardens and imagine that we were very rich indeed to have such a wonderful home. The day would never end without the obligatory climbing all over the “Mephisto,” the old war tank at the entrance. We loved that old building, it was a complete part of our childhood. Many of us married and had children and took them to visit this special place that was so dear to us as well. Until Brisbane lost its identity and some of its history, a sad day to see the museum being moved.  We have visited the new one in South Bank a few times and I am so sorry to say it has no charm. It’s clinical and uninteresting. We lost a wonderful tourist destination and a beautiful piece of history.

Please don’t ever demolish this building. It is well loved and part of Brisbane’s history. Thank you for reading.

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.

School trips from Maleny

I grew up in Maleny and there were a lot of poor people there then, mostly dairy farmers. I went to Maleny State School. Each year there was a school bus trip—for many this was the only time those kids left Maleny. Our school trip was always the same—we’d go to the pineapple factory (’cause it was free) on the way into Brisbane, then we’d come to the museum.  Here we’d sit on the grass and eat our sandwiches which we’d bring from home. We’d sit under the large frangipani trees—there were none in Maleny*—because the girls wanted to collect the flowers and wear them. We were strictly forbidden to climb the trees!

The trip never changed from year to year, and we loved it. Everyone got to re-visit their favorite thing. There was always the aeroplane hanging from the roof and the big display cases with their wooden edges and wooden bases. You’d hear the boys commenting on the exhibits “That’s not a snake. We’ve got bigger ones down in the dairy”.

*There was one frangipani tree, at our house in Tamarind Street, but not elsewhere. My dad was the vet and, at that time, the vet clinic was attached to our house.

Reptiles

I was a regular visitor as a child, coming with my parents to the museum in the 1970s and 80s. We loved the natural history displays on the second floor. I became fascinated by reptiles. Later, in my university days a friend, Professor John Pearn, knowing this, introduced me to the curator of herpetology at the museum, Jeanette Covacevich. They knew each other through John’s strong medically-based interest in and knowledge of venomous animals. This introduction led to an amazing day trip to Jeanette’s labs during the university holidays. The lab was full of reptiles in jars of formalin, and I realized that to work in this area I would have to capture and then kill reptiles, to then count scales. (The number and placement of scales is an important definition of species in reptiles). I didn’t want to do this.

The gardens were always a serene sunlit space, surrounding the museum.

After school, I would meet my friends at Triceratops, when going to the Ekka.

A note from the editor:  An obituary for the herpetologist Jeanette Covacevich, written by two of her colleagues at the museum, was published in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum—Nature 59. Thanks to Dr Judith McKay for this information.

In a secluded part of the gardens

I am Isobel Mary Siddans, nee Newton, now 91, of Maleny. In a little secluded part of the museum gardens, my husband Reuben Stanley (Stan) Siddans proposed to me.

A note from the editor: This story was recorded by one of the helpers at the Friends of the Botanic Gardens stand at the Ekka. Isobel and Stan announced their engagement in July 1946, and were married in February 1947.

1897 International Exhibition Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee

I have an 1897 coin in my possession that marks Queensland’s Celebration of the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign, being her Diamond Jubilee.  One side shows the Brisbane International Exhibition Building [see photo], the other side is of two heads of Queen Victoria, the young and the old. Her 60th year reign was 1837–1897.  The significance of the old Museum building on the coin could have been when the Queensland Government took over control of the building and grounds when the National Association was forced into liquidation by the economic depression in 1897.

Queen Vic Coin 1897_back

Queen Vic Coin 1897_front

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

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