Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1980s

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.

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.

Twin brothers on a school trip from Cairns

Expo was in ’88, when we were in grade 10—so we came to the museum on a school trip from Cairns four years before—so 1984–85. We were in grade seven at St Augustine College in Cairns and the brothers drove the bus down. We stopped in Gladstone on the way down—stayed overnight at Stella Maris College, and visited the look-out. On the way back we stopped at Mackay.

Our visit was for two weeks. We had half a day at the museum. We remember coming in off Gregory Terrace, and the pre-historic reptile hanging from the ceiling. We also visited Seaworld and Dreamworld and Grundy’s at the Gold Coast. We were here in June–July school holidays, but we went into the surf, because there’s no surf at Cairns. It was very special to come—not everyone could, it depended on the number of billets available—we had to put in expressions of interest.

A note from the editor: John and Kelly Perkins 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.

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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