Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1910s

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

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