At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world seemed unbearably young. It had yet to experience a World War or the Great Depression. Fossil fuels were the future and any new technology was seen as a good thing. It became known as the Gilded Age and it must have been heady times for those who had the cash to enjoy it. And there were plenty of those. One, in particular, was Thomas W Lawson. At one time Lawson was thought to be one of the wealthiest men in America with a fortune estimated at over USD $50 million (over $1 billion in today’s money).
How many people does it take to assemble a clock?
For the replica of John Harrison’s H3, currently on display as part of Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude, the answer is two master clockmakers. David Higgon and Sean Martin, from Charles Frodsham & Co, London, spent four days reassembling a thousand pieces to create the working model.
Almost 400 years ago, in the hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, a flagship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was wrecked upon Morning Reef near Beacon Island, some 60 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. It was the maiden voyage of the Batavia, bound for the Dutch East Indian colonies of modern-day Jakarta, but the tragedy of shipwreck would be overshadowed by the subsequent mutiny among the survivors on the isolated Houtman Abrolhos Islands.
On 2 June 1949 a small advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was for the sale of Hegarty’s Ferries, a family-owned service which at that time operated between Circular Quay, McMahons Point and Kirribilli. The whole enterprise was now up for sale, including the ‘diesel-engined boats, its wharves, offices, and equipment’. The owners, the well-known Hegarty family from Drummoyne, were heading south to Victoria.
A surprising purchaser stepped forward to take on the business – three women, headed up by Maud Barber. Maud, although no stranger to the Sydney harbour scene, bought the business along with her daughter and Miss Jean Porter. Maud was married to the boatbuilder and naval architect Arthur Barber, best known for his design of Rani, the first ever winner of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, in 1945.
When you tell people that you work at the museum, most will assume that you are a curator. Little do they realise that there are many other career paths in the cultural sector. Indeed, few teenagers would be advised by their guidance counsellor to study materials science at university. But those unfortunate souls will never get the chance to wear a onesie at work.
Object conservators specialise in the preservation, treatment and care of three-dimensional and mixed-media objects. In the collection, our conservators work on a wide range of objects including cannons, boats, model ships, swimsuits, canoes, glass-plate negatives, ethnographic items, marine archaeological objects and paintings. The diverse nature of the collection means our conservators often have to employ a range of preventative measures and treatment methodologies to look after a single collection item.
Dismantling Shackleton: Escape from Antarctica was a normal day for our object conservators. The objects were on loan from Museum Victoria and they were wonderful additions to bring the story of Shackleton’s epic Antarctic escape to life. Several of the taxidermy specimens required the team to don filtered masks and hazmat suits. As one conservator called it, ‘the science onesie: which is the only acceptable type of onesie’.
These specimens were over fifty years old and had been created with a series of treatments to keep insects away. Such treatments used hazardous chemicals including lead, arsenic, mercury and bromine. Decades later, these treatments are still rather effective at keeping the bugs away – and can still be harmful to humans if the proper safety precautions aren’t followed.
Hence the need for a science onesie.
After condition reporting the objects, our conservators suited up. Their Tyvek coveralls are made from a flash-spun, high-density polyethylene which provides a barrier against hazardous dry particles, aerosols and light liquid splashes. The outfits were completed by half-face respirators with particle filters.
Removing the objects from display was a delicate and time-consuming job. Each step required planning and consideration of how best to move the objects from their plinths and sliding the objects into their specialised packing crates.
Team work, coordination and communication are key qualities of an object conservator on jobs such as this, especially when you and your co-worker are handling a 100-year-old albatross while wearing a suit that doesn’t breathe, a mask which muffles your voice and cumbersome oversized gloves protecting your hands.
But our conservators are talented professionals with great passion for their jobs. They ensured that the operation ran smoothly. The objects are now safely in their crates ahead of their return to Museum Victoria.
Object conservation is a vital skill for the care of our collection. Materials science is an intriguing field of study with unique job opportunities. Suiting up to move a taxidermy penguin is certainly a fascinating day on the job.
– Kate Pentecost, Digital Curator
If you wish to get up close to our collection but want to wear an onesie, head over to our Google Cultural Institute page.
How did you spend your Easter Sunday? Hopefully you won the Easter egg hunt, had a delicious family barbeque or attended an Easter service. Today, we’re looking at several objects in the museum’s collection which explore the variety of ways Australians have celebrated Easter (and the long weekend).
It is easy, when reading accounts of early European explorers, to see only the official version they leave behind. The naval reports, detailed charts and an imposing portrait of a confident man in an impressive uniform.
But often, dig just a little deeper and a different man emerges. A man with individual oddities, unsuspected sympathies, personal tragedies and constant worries. Such is the case with the French explorer Durmont d’Urville.
The other day, I was walking through the Museum’s stores, when a strange object caught my eye: a neatly framed pair of odd looking dolls with very puffed up hair, which reminded me of the very elaborate 1980s hairstyles like the one Joan Collins wore on her Dynasty days.
These dolls are part of the Museum’s scrimshaw collection. Scrimshaw are objects created by whalers from the by-product of the whale, such as bones, teeth, baleen and bones. It was first done by sailors working on whaling ships out of the coast of New England between 1745 and 1759 until the moratorium of commercial whaling in 1986.
The global influence of a beloved brew
‘By the sea, drinking tea’, by researcher and former assistant curator Mariko Smith. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).
Tea can be considered as the first global commodity for mass consumption, and the maritime industry was crucial to this achievement by transporting chests of tea between ports around the world. Key players in the supply and demand for tea included large multinational merchant companies in Europe, most notably the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Britain’s own East India Company, which dealt in important trade goods such as tea between the Far East and Europe from the 17th to 19th centuries. These companies played important roles in exploration and discovery as well as commercial trade. Ships of exploration and commerce, they can be all considered as vessels of change: they brought significant social, cultural, economic and political transformations to nations such as Britain and Australia, simply through importing this fragrant cargo.
According to BBC Radio 4’s In our time profile on tea in 2004, Britain’s trade in tea began with a modest official import of just two ounces (60 g) during the 1660s, and grew to an annual supply of some 24 million pounds (11 million kg) by 1801. By the turn of the 20th century it was one of the most widely consumed substances on Earth; rich and poor alike were sipping an average of two cups a day and every Briton was using on average six pounds (3 kg) of tea leaves per year. Tea’s ability to transcend class was not lost on commentators such as English merchant philanthropist Jonas Hanway, who warned European society in an essay written in 1757 that ‘your servants’ servants, down to the very beggars, will not be satisfied unless they consume the produce of the remote country of China’.
‘Ships’ diaries’, by former technical services librarian Jan Harbison. From Signals 104 (Sept-Nov 2013).
This narrative is dedicated to my dear wife and children for their amusement and my employment and as it is most agreeable to me to sometimes hold converse with them, it is only intended for their eyes or those akin to them.
So begins the diary of Captain John Buttrey of the brig Dart in 1865. He could not know that nearly 150 years later, his diary might be accessed by a worldwide audience through the Internet, as are the blogs of today.
The museum’s public research facility, the Vaughan Evans Library, has many diaries written by travellers, immigrants, crew members, sea captains, naval men, ships’ surgeons, whaling captains, a captain’s wife, a matron and a convict. Some are very brief and factual, while others are beautifully descriptive and often very personal accounts revealing emotions and humour. Some have been donated by family members who might have found the diary in an attic; others have been purchased by or donated to the museum.
The diary quoted at the beginning of this article is a wonderful one. Captain Buttrey commanded a brig that travelled to the South Sea Islands in 1865 to collect bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and tortoiseshell. As well as writing letters home to his family, he kept the diary, which gives an insight into life at sea, interactions with the islanders, and his life at home, with frequent references to what his wife and four boys would be doing at that time of day. It is a diary full of affection for his family. He looks at their ‘likenesses’ every day:
I have [been] looking at your likenesses again today and have been pictureing [sic] you all at home. Our time is about 10 minutes in advance of Sydney so I say now they are at breakfast. Baby looks as if he was trying to imitate Lister with his mouth – Bateson looks as if he were brim full of mischief … Marshall appears as a staid gentleman & one of deep thought. The principal one Mama looks indescribably loveable.
Rheumatism sufferers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were bombarded with many strange potions, lotions and pills – all claiming to cure their complaints. None were perhaps as strange, or stomach churning, as the curious cure practiced in the seaside town of Eden, Twofold Bay.
‘When a whale is killed and towed ashore and while the interior of the carcass still retains a little warmth a hole is cut through one side of the body sufficiently large to admit the patient, the lower part of whose body from the feet to the loins should sink in the whale’s intestines, leaving the head, of course, outside the aperture. The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of animoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered.’
War, for all of its awful consequences, produces some fascinating advances in technology and some very curious inventions. Some have transferred their purposes to civilian society (the modern computer, the humble slinky) but others are too strange, too specialised to have ever left the realm of warfare.
Meet the Sleeping Beauty.
Designed in WWII by prolific British inventor Major H. Quentin Reeves (said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character ‘Q’ in the James Bond series) of the top-secret research centre Station IX – the Sleeping Beauties were submersible one-man canoes created specifically for the clandestine activities of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its offshoot Special Operations Australia (SOA).
Louis de Rougemont died a long way from Australia, the place that made his name. He died a long way from Switzerland, the place in which he was born. In fact when he died, penniless and forgotten in London in June 1921, Louis de Rougemont was no longer his name at all. It was just a name that had once been famous.
It was also a name that came to be synonymous with a very strange and short-lived sport; turtle riding:
She had a lovely voice. I wanted that voice. She was leaving to go to her house and I did not want her to go. I grabbed her by the throat. I choked her; I choked her. (Edward Leonski, quoted from trial transcript, National Archives of Australia Barcode 101035 p364)
In early 1942 two very different American soldiers arrived in Australia as part of a surge of United States troops based in Australia to fight the war in the Pacific. Hayford Octavius Enwall was a lawyer who was working as the Chief Legal Officer of the US Army Services of Supply and Edward Joseph Leonski was a problematic, troubled soldier with the US 52nd Signal Battalion. By the end of the war Enwall left Australia a married man, having fallen in love with Jean Kennett – a poster girl for Australian army recruitment. Leonski on the other hand did not leave Australia alive, and was executed at Pentridge Prison in 1943 for the murders of three Melbourne women. Continue reading
The danger of sea travel and the mysteries of the ocean have produced some elaborate and fascinating mythology over the thousands of years humans have been at sea. At the whims of weather and water, the rough and adventurous lives of sailors and seafarers led to the creation of a wide variety of superstitions, omens and rituals. Gods had to be supplicated, mermaids avoided and traditional rites observed in order to maintain a safe and productive journey. Perhaps the most enduring of these rituals is the Crossing the Line Ceremony. Continue reading