Caring for collections at ‘Maat’ Lighthouse

"We care about the island. Even if we never go there we want to know that the historic buildings are being conserved, the Aboriginal heritage is acknowledged and respected, and the Islands animals, plants and marine environment are protected for future generations" - Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI). Image: James Stone

“We care about the island. Even if we never go there we want to know that the historic buildings are being conserved, the Aboriginal heritage is acknowledged and respected, and the Islands animals, plants and marine environment are protected for future generations” – Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI). Image: James Stone

Ailsa Fergusson is a committee member of Friends of Maatsuyker Island. In 2012, Friends of Maatsuyker Island received funds as part of Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPSS) to complete the first stage of cataloguing the heritage objects of the Maatsuyker Lightstation, light tower and from the island. Last year, another grant helped finish the catalogue*.

What does it take to the care for a historic light station?

Maatsuyker Island, or ‘Maat’ as friends know it, lies 10 kilometres off Tasmania’s South coast. This remarkable light station opened in June 1891 and was run as a manned station until 1997, when the light was automated. Following this, management of the Island was handed to the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and a volunteer caretaker program commenced.

Maatsuyker Lighthouse is Australia’s southernmost lighthouse and it is acknowledged on the Tasmanian Heritage Register for its “historic heritage significance because it represents the principal characteristics of a group of Late Victorian Lightstation Buildings, including the remains of a rare supply haulage system and unusually intact lighthouse.”

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Capturing a lighthouse in 3D

The Cape Bowling Green lighthouse, at the museum in 2017. Image: ANMM.

The Cape Bowling Green lighthouse, at the museum in 2017. Image: ANMM.

Conservators rarely have the opportunity to access made-for-conservation equipment, software, tools or chemicals. We borrow and adapt things intended for other environments. Conservation labs are often populated with dental tools and equipment, surgical scalpels, entomological stainless steel pins, book binder’s presses and felts, as well as a tradesman’s array of socket sets, drills, punches and pliers. We put Tyvek® Homewrap® covers over collection objects as it is breathable and keeps off dust. We transport small objects in prawn crates and often display costume on off the shelf mannequins.

When it came time to document the Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse prior to major conservation work, our conservation team turned to technologies which are often used by insurance companies and real estate agents to photograph buildings and record damage.

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How to build a lighthouse

The timber structure of the lighthouse going up. The photograph was taken from aboard the visiting vessel <em>Cape Grafton</em>, 24 March 1994. Image: Deborah Gillespie.

The timber structure of the lighthouse going up. The photograph was taken from aboard the visiting vessel Cape Grafton, 24 March 1994. Image: Deborah Gillespie.

In 1993, the Australian National Maritime Museum was ready the rebuild the Cape Bowling Green Light.  After some discussion, a site near the wharf was selected.  Reconstruction of the lighthouse started in late 1993.  This visual story shows how the lighthouse was rebuilt piece by piece at Darling Harbour.

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How to move a lighthouse

Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse prior to dismantling 1987. Credit: Mike Lorimer (Ove Arup and Partners).

Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse prior to dismantling, 1987. Credit: Mike Lorimer (Ove Arup and Partners).

How do you move a building from a remote cape in far north Queensland? In 1987 the 113-year old Cape Bowling Green Light was superseded by radar beacon, decommissioned and sold to the Australian National Maritime Museum. Somehow, the museum had to transport a 22-metre structure from Cape Bowling Green to Darling Harbour, Sydney. So, how does a lighthouse travel over 2000km?

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A wandering light: Cape Bowling Green lighthouse

Ever wondered how a lighthouse came to be at the museum? Image: Kate Pentecost / ANMM, 2017.

Ever wondered how a lighthouse came to be at the museum? Image: Kate Pentecost / ANMM, 2017.

At 22 metres tall Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse seems a solid, immovable structure. In fact, it was designed for ready disassembly and has been moved at least three times in its 150-year life.  It has also been continuously modified throughout its history.  The lighthouse at the museum is only partially the lighthouse that was built at Cape Bowling Green in 1873-4. The lighthouse and its changing history challenges ideas about the preservation of immovable cultural heritage. Continue reading

The life of a lighthouse keeper

Goode Island lighthouse c.1909. Although officially unidentified, this family group is likely the Norgates as they were still the keepers on Goode Island until January 1910. Image: State Library of Queensland.

Goods Island lighthouse c 1909. Image: State Library of Queensland Collection.

Windswept romance or lonely desolation?

The life of a lighthouse keeper is often either romanticised or seen as a desolate life for those who prefer the solitary confines of the role, away from the social rigours of mainland life.

In reality, the life was a mixture of both and so much more. In our collection is an extraordinary log book kept by the lighthouse keeper William Norgate from November 1893 to November 1929. The log is dilapidated and fragile but reveals a humble yet extraordinary life.

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How to create…lighthouse story shadow puppets

shadow play

There’s just something about lighthouses that inspires a good story. Those charming beacons, perched atop cliffs, wrapped in red and white stripes, beaming out into the wild and wonderful wide-open sea for all the ships to see.

It’s nearly International Lighthouse and Lightships weekend and to celebrate we have a day of family fun and a little bit of lighthouse inspired kids craft for you to enjoy.

Shadow puppets are a cinch to make and a whole lot of fun to use. The creative storytelling possibilities are endless. It may be a haunted lighthouse on a lonely hill, an old light keeper on a stormy night, a happy lightship on a merry adventure with his pelican friend or a timeworn tale of sandwich stealing seagulls.

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Dunbar: Dun and Dusted

Hi, it’s Oli again. This time I’m going to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern at the museum in the curatorial department, which is writing about the infamous Dunbar wreck.

As one of the most significant wrecks in Sydney’s waters, it is important for the museum’s history of the wreck to be complete and accurate. To this end, I found myself reading Kieran Hosty’s book Dunbar 1857, Disaster on Our Doorstep, which paints a fascinating history of the wreck, according to the archaeological discoveries from the wreck site (just south of The Gap, near South Head, Sydney). I am tentative to admit the fact that I didn’t get much work done that day was on account of the book, which is complete with hundreds of images of various artefacts salvaged from the wreck, and provides a vivid insight into a tragic page of Sydney’s past.

Here are some highlights from the story of the Dunbar:

After a fast voyage from England to Australia, Dunbar approached Port Jackson on the night of 20 August 1857, in a rising gale and bad visibility. The Macquarie Light could be seen between squalls, however the night was very dark and the land almost invisible. Shortly before midnight the veteran Captain Green estimated the ship was six miles away from the harbour’s entrance and ordered the vessel on, keeping the Macquarie Light on the port bow.

Buckles removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

Shortly afterwards breakers were sighted ahead, and Captain Green, believing the vessel had sailed too far towards North Head, ordered the helm hard to port. Dunbar struck the cliffs just south of the Signal Station at South Head, and the ship immediately began to break up. All 63 passengers and 58 of the crew perished in the disaster.

The sole survivor was James Johnson, an able seaman on watch at the time of the wreck. He was hurled into the surging ocean, where he was thrust by the waves into the cliffs and onto a rocky ledge – he climbed as far up the cliff-face as he could, and managed to get out of the reach of the waves. Johnson would remain there for two days, before being hauled up by a rope lowered over the cliff-face.

Many Sydneysiders knew the people on the ship and large crowds were drawn to the scene of the wreck to watch the rescue of Johnson, the recovery of bodies, and the salvage of cargo – newspapers were filled with graphic descriptions of the wreck for weeks after.

A small selection of the vast number of coins removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

The victims of Dunbar were buried at St Stephens Church in Newtown, and an estimated 20,000 people attended. Banks and offices closed, every ship flew their ensigns at half-mast, and minute guns were fired as the procession went past. Later, there was an outpouring of letters demanding the upgrade of the lighthouses, and the issue was raised in Parliament and recommended by the jury of the Dunbar inquest. This recommendation was followed in 1858 when Hornby Lighthouse was constructed.

The museum has a fascinating collection relating to this disaster and my job has been to proof the entries in our collection management system to ensure all the information is correct.

NB. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s Dunbar collection were removed from the wreck by hobby divers during the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of laws protecting significant historical maritime sites.

A Morse Code Lighthouse Limerick

Oh Hark Oh hark

It’s time for a lark!

The Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse and lightship Carpentaria are shivering with anticipation. It is none other than International Lighthouse and Lightship weekend, culminating in a very special day of fun on Sunday- Lighthouse Larks family day!

Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse

Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse on a beautiful sunny day

You can climb the lighthouse for free, admire Carpentaria from the wharf, or travel Round the Twist with Tony, Pete, Linda and Bronson in a special screening of best episodes from the award winning television series.

Lightship Carpentaria on the wharf

Lightship Carpentaria on the wharf

It wouldn’t be lighthouse day without something around our other famous beacon, the Tasman light, a lighthouse lens in the middle of the museum where we have storytelling performances. Mrs Cedar Shore, an old lighthouse keeper’s daughter will be weaving tales of lighthouse lunches, naughty seagulls and wild storms.

Craft Lighthouse sculptures, souvenirs and more in Kids on Deck

In Kids on Deck we will be crafting lighthouse sculptures resplendent in white and red, experimenting with circuitry to make a working lantern, writing lighthouse poetry and making inspired souvenirs. There will also be dress-ups and games and an attempt to create a giant collaborative parabolic reflector like those used to increase the brightness of light sources inside a lighthouse.

view of the lens in Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse

View of the lens in Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse

But it’s more than fun and games, International lighthouse lightship weekend aims to raise awareness about the need to take care of our historic beacons and also to promote amateur radio.  Lighthouse stations all around the world will be tapping out radio communications including morse code, and the Hornsby and District amateur radio society will be camped out on our wharf all weekend to do the same. We thought you might like to get in the mood with this little morse code lighthouse limerick….can you tell us what it says?

– …. . .-. . / .– .- … / .- -. / — .-.. -.. / — .- -. –..– / .- / -.- . . .–. . .-. / — ..-. / .-.. .. –. …. – …

.– …. — / .-.. .. -.- . -.. / – — / -.. .-. . … … / ..- .–. / .. -. / ..-. . .- – …. . .-. / …. .- – … / .- -. -.. / -… .-. .. –. …. – …

– …. . / … . .- –. ..- .-.. .-.. … / .– . .-. . / … -.-. .- .-. . -..

.- -. -.. / …. .. … / .– .. ..-. . / …. .- .-. -.. .-.. -.– / -.-. .- .-. . -..

.- … / …. . / … .- -. –. / .-.. .. -.- . / .- / -.. -.– .. -. –. / … .– .- -. / .- .-.. .-.. / – …. .-. — ..- –. …. / – …. . / -. .. –. …. – …

Lighthouse Larks Family Fun Day Sunday 19 August 10am – 3pm.

See for full program details.

Heroic deeds and the humble lighthouse keeper

Engraving of a lighthouse keeper

The Lighthouse-Keeper, Australasian Sketcher 1880s
ANMM Collection

What was life like for a lighthouse keeper? I spotted this engraving, ‘The Lighthouse-Keeper’, which was published in the Australasian Sketcher in the 1880s. The sense of solitude and contemplation is striking and it occurred to me that there is often much emphasis on the lighthouse as a sturdy, dependable symbol of navigational safety, but less on the figure of the lighthouse keeper. Earlier this year, I wrote about the story of the ‘heroic maiden’, Grace Horsley Darling. It was only until I revisited her fascinating story that I realised she was able to rescue nine people after she spotted them from Longstone lighthouse. All accounts, paintings, ballads and poems written about her, seemed to view her connection to the lighthouse as an inherent part of her identity. This engraving and Grace’s story illustrate a common motif, one in which the lighthouse keeper is perpetually depicted as the silent, unwavering guardian of the seas.
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Shine a light


View of carpentaria from the water

Blue skies, crisp air and brilliant sunshine. The perfect May day.

A little red lightship bobs in the waves.

The Cape Bowling Green lighthouse reflects blinding white on North wharf.

Over on South Head another beacon stands, decked out in circus- worthy stripes.

This week I have had more than my share of time out on the harbour enjoying some amazing historic lighthouses.

First it was out one of the small fleet boats Arvor, cruising around the shores of the Museum to take some footage of the Commonwealth Lighthship 4, Carpentaria, with Elias and Eleanor from Curiousworks. 

Elias filming from the boat

Elias filming from the water on our way out to where Carpentaria is stationed

On board Carpentaria

On board Carpentaria

Usually Carpentaria is one of the vessels in our collection that can only be enjoyed from the comfort and safety of a wharf-side walkway but today we get a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with this flame-coloured beauty. It’s a little precarious climbing the narrow ladder up the side and over the top rails ( not to worry, we have our self-inflatable life-jackets on!) . Up top is spectacular though, and for the purpose of the film’s soundscape we get to unloose the bells. The deep ring echoes on and on and on, it’s almost like a clocktower’s midnight chime, smothering the chatter of seagulls and the beating whistle of the breeze. You can almost imagine the sounds of that fateful moment in 1944 when Carpentaria broke free of her moorings on Breakfree Spit during a cyclone. This warning bell was designed to toll with the motion of the ship, ringing out in case of poor visibility during foggy weather or a malfunction of the light.

The footage taken of Carpentaria will be used for one of a series of short films being made about our collection for the release of the anniversary publication One Hundred Stories, coming out later this year. It’s also the last we will see of this little lightship for a few weeks as Carpentaria is off to Garden Island for repairs.

View from Rosman Ferry Radar as we cruise around Sydney

View from Rosman Ferry Radar as we cruise around Sydney

The next day I’m back out on the harbour for our Shipwrecks cruise forum, held in partnership with WEA Sydney.

After an introduction to the science of the corrosion and conservation of shipwrecks led by some of the museums wonderful teacher guides we set out for Watsons Bay on board the Radar.

Party lights on Radar

No shortage of beautiful weather and fresh breeze to enjoy and we have expert commentary courtesy of curator Nigel Erskine who has joined us for the day. Over at Watsons Bay our destination is the Hornby Lighthouse.

the view from the walking track up to Hornby lighthouse

the view from the walking track up to Hornby lighthouse

We take a walking track past the soft sands of camp cove beach, said to be one of the first landing places for the fleet in 1788, past disused cannon and gun turrets and alongside the spectacular views of sparkling waters and sailboats. The walk is quick and easy. Before we know it we are turning the corner to encounter the sandstone lightkeepers cottage and then the petite but spectacular red and white striped lighthouse. There is something endearing and cheerful about Hornby lighthouse that belies the horrific tragedies that brought this beacon into being.

Hornby Lighthouse

Hornby Lighthouse

Hornby Lighthouse

Hornby Lighthouse

In 1857 the Dunbar crashed with the loss of 121 out of the c.122 lives on board. The Hornby Lighthouse was built in 1858 to make sure this never happened again. It was also just the third lighthouse built in NSW.

How to park a lightship

In the misty rain of an early Sydney morning the museum’s fleet section moved CLS4 – aka Carpentaria lightship – from the main museum wharves back to its normal berth at Wharf 7.  Nudged along by our tug Bareki and towed by the Arvor workboat the operation was seamlessly completed before most people arrived at work. All in a day’s work for fleet!

Carpentaria lightship is carefully moored at Wharf 7

Commonwealth Lightship No. 4, also known as CLS4 or Carpentaria is a riveted, steel hulled, unpowered and unattended vessel fitted with a light and bell to act as a light vessel or light ship. It was built in 1917/18 at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney – one of four sister ships designed by D & C Stevenson of Edinburgh, Scotland for the Commonwealth Department of Transport in 1915.  CLS4 spent most of its service life on Merkara Shoal in the Arafura Sea at the top of the Gulf of Carpentaria with the name Carpentaria emblazoned in large black letters along both sides of its red hull. It was last stationed in the Bass Strait oilfields just north of Wilson’s Promontory serving as a Traffic Separator until it was retired from service in 1985, and transferred to the Australian National Maritime Museum the following year.  CLS2 is displayed at the Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane.

– Lindsey Shaw, Senior Curator

The things conservators get up to

If you’d been at the Maritime Museum last Friday, you might have been wondering what the fire brigade was doing at the top of the lighthouse. No, it was not on fire!

Penny at top of lighthouse

Conservator, Penny Nolton on the aerial lift platform with the lantern room in the background. In the past, to clean the windows, the lighthouse keepers would have to stand on that very narrow red-painted walkway and hold onto the handles on the window frames.

As a senior conservator at the museum, one of my tasks is to develop a conservation management plan for the lighthouse. As part of the planning and preparation for a new weathervane and repainting the lighthouse, I need to get up close and personal to carry out a very detailed condition report of the entire building from top to bottom, inside and out.

Top of Lighthouse

Bird’s eye view of the museum from the top of Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse

To inspect the attachment point of the weathervane and take detailed photos, I needed to get 22 metres into the air and swing in as close as possible to the finial (the red ball). Because of its position on the wharf, it’s very tricky to get up to the top of the lighthouse. There’s not a huge amount of space. This is where the fire brigade comes in handy.  I was very excited to have the opportunity to go up in their aerial lift and get a bird’s eye view.  I got to wear a fireman’s hat and harness and go skyward to document the condition of the top of the dome and the weathervane attachment.

The lighthouse’s position on the wharf means that it’s exposed to a harsh marine environment so we need to be vigilant about its maintenance. We do regular cleaning and inspections inside the lighthouse and look for corrosion and other signs of wear and tear on the exterior. Because it’s open to the public, it’s also inspected by engineers from time to time to make sure it’s safe.

Lighthouse and crane

Fireman lending a hand to inspect the lighthouse.

When planning for maintenance and repairs, I carry out detailed research to determine appropriate materials, methods and design. The repairs must be sympathetic to the object, must last, and the work processes must be safe.   For example, I have been researching historic plans of the lighthouse and records of other late 19th century Queensland lighthouses to assist in the design and fabrication of the new weathervane.  But once it’s made, how we will get up there and attach it?  I wish I could say I’ll be bunging jumping from a helicopter – now that would be exciting!  But this is not the movies. So we need to come up with a plan that meets modern safety standards. We have a few ideas. If you look up, you might see an abseiler on the roof sometime in the future.  Stay tuned.

For more information and specs on the lighthouse visit our website.

Also, in my research I came across this great article online about the stealthy operation to dismantle the lighthouse at Cape Bowling Green, North Queensland in 1987.

Penny Nolton
Senior Objects Conservator
Australian National Maritime Museum