Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Month: July 2016

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

A long walk home

My old museum story is from the 1960s, the time of my childhood, when my family—my parents, bother and sister—lived in northwestern Queensland. My father’s family had moved from north Queensland to Brisbane in the 1930s and most years of my growing up we made the long drive down the coast—turn right at Townsville—in the Christmas holidays. We visited members of my mother’s family along the way. From Caloundra we made short trips to Brisbane to my grandparents in New Farm.

I remember visits of the museum, and seeing the diorama about Aboriginal people on the ground floor, and the wide flight of stairs to the next level. The impressiveness of the staircase stayed with me—I had never been in such a large and beautiful building before. I can recall the magnificent display cabinets on this next level, in long rows, just like in the photo. I don’t remember Bert Hinkler’s plane, though it must have been there!

The mezzanine level of the Queensland Museum, with Bert Hinkler's Avro Avian aeroplane hanging from the roof.

The mezzanine level of the Queensland Museum, with Bert Hinkler’s Avro Avian aeroplane hanging from the roof. John Oxley Library photo

I do remember the lung fish in its tank on the verandah, and the garden beyond.  Once, in my memory, my mother and we children walked home from the museum to my grandparents’ house—I recall feeling very tired, and it being a long way. But, in hindsight, I realise that we probably walked to Fortitude Valley and caught the tram from behind McWhirters.

Do you have a photo of Mephisto?

A note from the editor:

The Queensland Museum is the custodian of Mephisto, the only First World War German tank left in the world. The tank was captured in France by Australian soldiers in 1918.

Most of the troops who captured the tank came from Queensland. They campaigned for Mephisto to be brought to Brisbane, where it was put on display at the Queensland Museum in 1919.

A group of museum curators are writing a book about Mephisto and are appealing for your help to find old photographs of the tank.

Have you got a photo of Mephisto at the old museum? If you do, the museum curators would love to hear from you. And please, share the story here too.

The German First World War tank 'Mephisto' on display outside the entrance to the Old Museum in the early 1920s. John Oxley Library

The German First World War tank ‘Mephisto’ on display outside the entrance to the Queensland Museum. The photo was taken before 1921 when an open-sided shelter was built to give it some protection from the weather. John Oxley Library

Fixing the balls

The two ball-shaped finials on the tops of the two domes outside the exhibition hall wing of the building were damaged by the severe hail storm in November 2014. The finials have been repaired, and I was on hand the other day to inspect them after they had been re-installed. From the cherry picker I had this wonderful view of the building, its garden, and the RNA show grounds nearby.

Looking north over the garden beds of the old museum garden, with the RNA showground beyond.

Looking north over the garden beds of the old museum garden, with the RNA showground beyond.

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