Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Page 3 of 4

The thousand violins

Hi,

I’m a violinist on the Sunshine Coast.

I wondered if you have heard the story of the Thousand Violins concerts that were given in the Brisbane Exhibition Hall on the evenings of the 18th, 19th and 20th of August 1927, and broadcast live on the radio. The event made it into the overseas press, and all the Brisbane newspapers wrote glowing reviews. It was widely considered to be an amazing success. The strings were accompanied by organ and piano, and the conductor and organiser was violinist Mr Luis Amadeo Pares, a man of great spirit, who was well known in Brisbane in those days. He founded a centre of the arts called The Hall of the Muses, located approxi­mately where the supreme and district courts are in George Street today. He trained many of the student violinists for the Thousand Violins concert free of charge and the event generated enormous interest. Many had predicted that the concert wouldn’t sound good, with 1,000 young student violinists, but somehow Mr Pares achieved the impossible and the tone and intonation was said to be excellent. Actually the real number of student performers was 1,300. Luis was also president of the then newly-formed Spanish Club of Brisbane.

I think it’s important that Queensland and especially Brisbane remembers Mr Pares and all he achieved. Interestingly, for lovers of classical music, it is also of interest that the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler, performed in the Exhibition Hall in the 1920s.

Cheers,

Jon O’Brien

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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.

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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.

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End of the day

When I was a little girl (early 1960s) my parents separated, and I lived with my mum. I did not see my dad on a regular basis, but we had a ‘date’ every year to go to the Ekka and spend the whole day together. In the morning we walked to the Ekka from dad’s flat in the Valley, and then proceeded to walk around the entire Ekka (dad always followed a set route that included everything). By afternoon it was always time to continue on to the Old Museum to look at all the displays. I am not sure whether dad thought the museum was educational for me, or whether he just wanted to stretch out his whole day with his only child. I think that I was not always as appreciative of the Old Museum as I should have been, because the visit always came at the end of our day at the Ekka when I was tired and still had the walk back to dad’s flat ahead of me (and I couldn’t wait to open my show bags). Strangely though (for a little girl), my favourite at the old museum was the captured German tank Mephisto.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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A good day out

We were living at Redcliffe. Mum and Dad used to bring the four of us to the museum for the day and we’d spread out, exploring. It felt a little bit dusty with light streaming in through the lovely old windows.  All the nooks and crannies, including the staircases were packed full of exhibits: photography gear, precious stones, minerals, thunder-eggs and crystals.  An aeroplane hung suspended from the ceiling between the balconies, tantalisingly close but still out of reach.  There were rows of dark, wooden display cases covered with brown, leather blinds and each one was like opening a Christmas present when you pushed it back to reveal what treasure was inside.  There was an amazing array of insects: butterflies, beetles,  dragonflies; I was glad the one with the spiders was covered so I didn’t have to see them.  In some there were birds eggs of all shapes and sizes and colours; in others, a huge variety of seashells.  There were old coins and ancient objects from all over the world, and against the walls, taxidermied birds and animals, and a box jellyfish floating broodingly in a tall glass tank.  “Mum, Dad, come and look at this!” I’m sure they enjoyed our excitement as much as they enjoyed their own explorations, and enjoy them they certainly did.  Dad loved to answer our questions, and give us that little bit of extra information.  It was like having our own personal guide.  He was like a walking encyclopedia!

Mum always had a picnic prepared and we would eat it under the downstairs balcony near the old army tank and the ancient lung fish.  I used to feel sorry for that fish lying there all alone in a tank too small for it to move around in.  Then we’d forget about it and go back inside to see some more.

It was always a disappointment when we had to leave—there was so much more to see than you could possibly manage in just one day.

Next time we’d make new discoveries, or go back to our old favourites.  And was that mean old jellyfish still there?  I can still see it, in my mind, with it’s long, long tentacles pooled at the bottom of its prison.  Was it alive, or preserved and floating in alcohol?  I don’t know, but it gave me the horrors, anyway.

I’ve always wished I could go back as an adult and explore the old place as it was, with Dad at my side to answer the questions, of course.  I’m sure there was something I missed.

Us all, 1969

Us all, 1969

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From Sunburn to Museum Curator

I was five years old, very fair skinned with a tendency to freckles. Our family was holidaying at Redcliffe and, despite my mother’s care, I got very sunburned one day on the beach. My father decided to go to Brisbane the next day for various reasons and, as I was not allowed to go out in the sun that day, he took me with him. One of the places we went to that day was the Queensland Museum. As I entered the imposing doorway, all thoughts of my painful red shoulders vanished, my eyes widened and I was transported into a world of wonder.

Glass cases filled with fascinating beetles and butterflies, shells and crustacea, Egyptian mummies, suspended aeroplanes, oh, there was so much for my little self to absorb. I never lost the wonder of that museum. Every holiday after that, when we went to Brisbane, I made it compulsory to visit the museum.

Many years later, I found myself working on the museum’s crustacea collections, deep in the offices below the galleries. Again several years after that, I undertook a placement in the Anthropology Department of the museum, researching the Aboriginal rainforest shield collection, while studying for a career in museums.

The sunburned five year old lived the dream born of that long ago wondrous visit to a treasure house.

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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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