Every year the museum awards various grants through its Maritime Museums of Australia Support Scheme (MMAPSS). These can take the form of financial assistance or in kind support, for which museum staff travel to the institution involved. This is an excellent outreach opportunity for the museum, and being onsite greatly improves the quality of the work its staff can do. As Curator for Historic Vessels I travelled well out into regional New South Wales to work with two of the successful recipients in the most recent round of grants. I was visiting two very different craft: the 107-year-old paddle steamer PS Ruby and an oyster punt built by Gus Cole, possibly as early as 1918.
Five days in Victoria and the Murray River, and I have had discussions or inspections involving an amazing variety of craft over a short period, showing once again what a diverse collection of historic craft and related people that we have in Australia. From a basic hand worked colonial log craft to the most luxurious steam yacht in the country, through paddle steamers, barges and corrugated iron dinghies then finally back to where things began in this country, Indigenous bark canoes and a community gathering.
A Maritime Museums of Australia Support Scheme (MMAPSS) funded vessel inspection in Echuca was the initial reason for coming down to the Murray, but the Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV) came aboard as well, and this combination of resources has yielded some very useful work and contacts over five days from 20 to 24 February.
Driving across from Albury I stopped at Wahgunyah, once one of the busiest inland ports when it was at the top end of the paddle steamer trade along the Murray River. Here, on a private property I was able to inspect closely one of those hidden gems of history, a real curiosity. It was a semi-circular shaped vessel made from part of a red gum log decades ago, perhaps over 100 years ago. It may have just carried a few people or some goods on the local creeks to and from the port. The raked ends were once panelled over and only the remnants of the nails survive, it has cut outs and fastening holes that may have related to its method of use, and a sump for bailing it out. This unusual craft been on the ARHV for two years (HV000509) but it was terrific to see it up close and confirm various details.
Navigation Chart for the Darling River
December is an interesting month for discussion of water conservation and regulation in Australia. At the museum, AQUA: A Journey into the World of Water* opens on 3December with a multisensory experience that promotes a message about the provision of safe drinking water. It asks visitors to ‘make a pledge to save water for the planet’.
Meanwhile, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Draft Basin Plan – which was (pardon the pun) leaked to journalists last week is to be released for 20 weeks of public comment from the end of November. The draft plan has already drawn widespread criticism and comment from both environmentalists and irrigators.
Water is a hot topic at present.
Our historical practices of water usage, management and flow diversion are important areas for maritime history, and for maritime museums. In the past, historians generally wrote about the affairs of people as they moved across, worked, or lived on the land, rivers and oceans. The environment was in effect, a backdrop to the history of humanity; human-nature interactions were a story of how we have harnessed the environment over time.
Yet environmental histories are now more attuned to finding a connectedness between people, their stories and their environments. In museums, we are increasingly looking at objects from the past not merely as records of human progress but as, for example, how they might be records of climate change.
This navigation chart of the Darling River was hand-drawn by paddle steamer captain James B Packer in the mid-nineteenth century. Such charts were commonly made of canvas or sail cloth and were rolled up into a scroll. This chart shows a two hundred kilometre long section of the meandering Darling River from Cuthero Woolshed to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers at Wentworth. The chart is just over 1.73 metres in length.
As well as all the important landmarks of homesteads, woolsheds and hotels along the river, Packer’s chart meticulously depicts sandbanks, fallen trees, snags, rocks, and billabongs. It is a paddle steamer navigation chart with critical information for river captains. Yet it is also a snapshot of the river’s landscape – and its health – from over 150 years ago.
Packer’s carefully hand-drawn chart is one of three similar inland riverways maps in the National Maritime Collection. Each one is like a work of art in its own right. They also provide valuable historical information about the environment of the Murray-Darling basin. As the balances of water conservation, river flow restoration and irrigation are debated over the next weeks, Packer’s river chart reminds us of the ongoing importance of such objects in understanding maritime environmental histories.
Curator Environment, Industry and Shipping.
*AQUA: A Journey into the World of Water is created by ONE DROP, an initiative of Guy Laliberté, Founder of Cirque du Soleil®.