Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1970s

Into the big smoke

I came on a school excursion from Ipswich—into the big smoke. This would have been in the early 1970s.

It was a jaw-dropping experience—the internal size of the building; the BIG dinosaur inside!

A note from the editor: John Russell 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.

Visiting from Roma

I’ve always loved the architecture of the old building. I recall the hanging dinosaur and the exhibits—snakes and lizards in jars—and the skeletons.

I was visiting in the 1970s. I lived out west—Roma—and each year we’d come to the Ekka for a few days, and then to grandma’s at Redcliffe for a few days. I’d see the beautiful old building on the corner. It was terrible to see it neglected—there were ten years of disrepair—I remember it had broken windows. It picked up when the orchestra came.

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

Part of daily life

I lived in Northey Street in the 1960s and 1970s, and I came here all the time. The building was part of my daily life—I saw it when I walked to school on Gregory Terrace; I saw it when my dad and I went swimming each Saturday morning at Centenary Pool; I caught trams from here.

I love this old building, and I used to spend hours in the exhibits when the museum was here.

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

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.

Repurposed for World Expo 88

In 1987/88, with World Expo 88 just a short while away in Brisbane, the Restaurant & Caterers’ Association of Qld (RCAQ) established a training school to prepare the influx of casual employees who would be working there. The Old Museum became the HQ for the RCAQ and I worked in the building for a number of months. It was a spooky environment and on several occasions, weird things happened such as the phone line appearing to be in use but no one else was in the building, and a gate that we had locked at night being wide open in the morning.

Courier Mail social reporter Ken Lord also kept an office there, down a long cement hallway lined with wooden shelves all the way along. We were all based in the bowels of the building and felt quite proud to be working out of such a proud, quintessentially Brisbane building. We pretty much had the run of the place including the grounds, the verandas and the massive open space that used to house the suspended aeroplane.

As a child, I remember going to the Old Museum on school excursions and seeing the dinosaurs out the front, the hanging aeroplane and the bugs in display cases. It felt old and dusty even then (1970s) but it felt so awful for the museum to move out, and many times, I wondered if it would mean the end of the building. Happily, it remains to this day, but it could sure use some restoration.

Identification and encouragement

I think this was about 1970, I was a nerdy kid of about 10, really interested in the environment around me. (Way before ‘environment’ was understood). It was probably the summer school holidays, and there was this explosion in spiders, including a really fascinating one that made this complicated web. It came in several colours of the abdomen, green and brown and red. The web was large with an intricate net like dome where the spider sat and a chain of egg sacs rose up in the web. My parents had not recalled seeing such a spider before and we had dozens in our yard. This is before the internet, and the encylopaedias we had did not describe this spider. I was desperate to find out what they were. Eventually my Mum took me to the Museum, to the entomology department and asked if there was anyone who could identify the spider. A lady scientist came out and looked at my live specimen in a honey bottle. She told us it was a dome building spider. (This has remained a common spider in Brisbane since). I was delighted. I had an answer and the lady kindly suggested a spider book which my Mum could buy for me to identify my own spiders in the future. (I still have that well used book today). But also there was the encouragement she gave me to keep looking around me and that a girl could be a scientist! I have never killed a spider in my life, I remain fascinated by them. I went to University and studied medicine 7 years later. I think the Museum experience played a part in that choice.

A note from the editor: Thanks to Geoff Thompson for commenting on this story, and revealing the identity of that lady scientist—Dr Valerie Todd Davies (1920–2012)—and providing a link to her obituary.

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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