Celebrating women’s history

This blog post is part of an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

At the Museum of Tropical Queensland, we have a team of incredible women who look after our collections, our research, our visitors, and our galleries. Behind closed doors, much of our collection was also built on the travels and research of women in both the past and present.

This hidden gem has been pulled from the collections to highlight the input of two women who have helped make our collections what they are today, and who are representative of the many women who have made valuable contributions to our collections over the years. In a sense, this object is but one that represents a tribute to women as makers, as creators, as artists, and as collectors.

This beautiful cushion cover was collected in the Torres Strait Islands by Pamela Brodie. During mid-1979, Pamela travelled around the Islands, collecting over 180 items such as this for the James Cook University Material Culture unit, which was later donated to the Queensland Museum Network. Some of the objects collected by Brodie are now stored in Brisbane at the Queensland Museum, and the rest are kept here in Townsville, at the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

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This particular item was collected from Medigee Village on Erub (Darnley) Island, and was made by an artist by the name of Pamela Gela. The cushion cover was displayed at the Museum of Tropical Queensland from 2000-2005. Pamela Gela’s artistic design and innovative use of materials and colour has given us an insight into the diversity of Torres Strait material culture.

The input of both Pamela Gela and Pamela Brodie to the Museum’s collection has assisted us in building a diverse, valuable collection of material culture from the Torres Strait, and helps us to further understand, appreciate and showcase the significant heritage of Torres Strait Islander people through our work at the Museum. These two women represent some of the many incredible contributors that have helped shape the Queensland Museum’s collection today.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland

GEORGE RANDALL’S SOUVENIR UMBRELLA

Have you ever stopped to appreciate the craftsmanship of a good quality umbrella?  In Queensland where the weather is usually fine and sunny, most of us these days tend to wear hats to keep the sun off our heads which leaves our beloved umbrellas safely tucked away for those occasional – yet not uncommon – heavy rainfall seasons.

The Queensland Museum recently acquired this old umbrella which was manufactured in c. 1901 by Reid & Todd; a travel and leather goods store located in Glasgow, Scotland. It is an earlier example of what we today regard as a ‘modern day’ umbrella. Prior to the mid nineteenth century, ‘brollies’ were traditionally crafted from whalebone and/or wood, and silk was commonly used for the canopy. This resulted in them being a tad on the heavy side and somewhat delicate – probably a bit of a nuisance if you’re getting about in heavy rain all the time.

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Image of H49762, George Randall’s souvenir umbrella, c.1901.

The clever design of the modern day umbrella frame is owed to Mr Samuel Fox who was an industrialist and steelworker from Sheffield, England.  In 1851, he developed “U-shaped” stainless steel ribs which gave form to the famous ‘Paragon’ frame – that lovely rounded “U” shape we are all familiar with when we think of umbrellas.  The design became superior to anything available on the market resulting in a unique, stronger and lighter umbrella.  During the turn of the nineteenth century, Samuel Fox became the largest umbrella frame maker in the world.

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Image of H49762, George Randall’s souvenir umbrella – open, c.1901.

This particular umbrella in the museum’s collection belonged to Mr George Randall who was Immigration Officer for the Queensland government from 1881 until 1902. Mr Randall frequently travelled abroad on long stints to Britain on recruiting campaigns with a view to attracting new settlers to the colony. He became very well known for his lectures which promoted Queensland.  In 1901, towards the end of his career, he took up the position of Court Manager for the Queensland section of the Glasgow International Exhibition. The umbrella was either purchased or given to Mr Randall as a souvenir while he was in Glasgow for this momentous event. The umbrella is made of a wood stick, a rounded ivory handle and dons the famous ‘Paragon’ steel frame. It has a brass collar fixed to the stick with ‘Reid & Todd Glasgow’ engraved onto it. The ivory handle contains George Randall’s initials inscribed in black indicating the personal aspect of the object.

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Detail view of H49762, souvenir umbrella, c.1901. Image shows George Randall’s initials inscribed into the ivory handle.

This umbrella is a great addition to the social history collection here at Queensland Museum. It allows us to explore the individual story of George Randall and to understand his contributions both personal and professional to building a colony of people who would come to work, live and love Queensland as he so did. George Randall was an avid lover of literature and took to poetry as a way of appealing to his fellow countrymen. In a pamphlet that he published titled The Emigrant: his Thoughts, Feelings and Aspirations, he writes in the very first verse:

I am going, I am going to a land beyond the sea,
And I ask my fellow-countrymen, “Will any follow me?”
I am going – not in search of gold, or buoyed by hopes of wealth,
But where maybe hard toil there’ll be, though toil that belongs to good health.
No fairy-dreams of fortune won to give luxurious ease,
No castles in the air are mine, I harbour none of these;
But what I long for is a home – my own, my own, and free –
And I feel that I shall gain it in in the land beyond the sea.

This poem which goes on for another seven pages demonstrates Randall’s enthusiasm and passion for newcomers to consider Queensland as their new home. The pamphlet is one of a small group of items held in the museum’s collection relating to George Randall. The other items include a business card for George Randall’s son, Richard Randall who was a painter, a black and white printed photographic portrait of George Randall taken by the world famous Lafayette Ltd. photographic studio, a copy of the ‘Scottish Trader’ Vol. V., No.34, September 21, 1901, Glasgow which was a registered Glasgow newspaper with a focus on grocery and allied trades, containing mostly advertisements for various foods as well as a feature article on page 11 about Queensland and it’s food products and a highlight on George Randall and his role as Manager of the Queensland Court at the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1901. Alongside these items are three small printed souvenir pictures showing exterior scenes of the Glasgow International Exhibition buildings and an official invitation to George Randall to attend the Reception of the same event.

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H49763.2 Printed photographic portrait of Mr George Randall, taken by Lafayette Ltd. The world famous Lafayette photographic studio was founded in Dublin in 1880, by James Stack Lauder. The firm very quickly established itself as the premier portrait studio in Ireland and it wasn’t long until it began taking portraits for members of the Royal family including of Princess Alexandra to mark her visit to Ireland in 1885. During the 1890s, the business expanded with studios established in Glasgow, Manchester and London. It’s possible the portrait of Mr George Randall was taken while he was working in Glasgow for the International Exhibition in 1901.

 

Carmen Burton, Assistant Curator Queensland Stories

The Myth of the Mermaid

This blog post is the first in an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

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Everyone knows the myth of the mermaid – the half woman, half fish, who is sometimes kind and at other times a source of evil who lures unassuming sailors to their deaths. But where did the legend come from?

The myth can be traced to cultures all over the world. One of the earliest versions of the tale speaks of the Sirens of Greek mythology, who show many similarities with the modern day mermaid. In Assyrian mythology, dating to c. 1000 BC, it is said that the goddess Atargatis took the form of the half woman, half fish creature during her life. Another legend speaks of Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, becoming a mermaid after her death.

In Irish mythology, there is the Merrow. In Scotland, the Ceasg or Selkie. In Western Europe, the Melusine, and in Slavic folklore, the Rusalka. Parts of Africa hold belief in Mami Wata, Cameroon calls their mermaid the Jengu, and in Maori culture, Pania of the reef. Chinese, Korean, and Thai cultures all have their own variations, and in many Western cultures, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid has immortalised the image of the mermaid that we know today.

In Papua New Guinea, there is a legend about the mythical Ri or Ilkai, sometimes known as a Pishmary (meaning fish woman): a human-like sea creature that resembles the European mermaid. The creature long thought to be this mythological being, with sightings stretching back several decades, has since been proven to be the Indo-Pacific dugong, ‘Dugong dugon’. Regardless of this, there are many locals who still believe that a mysterious being lives in the waters of Papua New Guinea, with the tail of a fish, and the features of a woman.

This sculpture was donated to the Museum of Tropical Queensland by Peter Watt. Mr Watt worked as an engineer on the Melanesian Discovery tourist-ship which travelled around the Trobriand Islands and Sepik River regions of Papua New Guinea in 1990, during which time he collected several items that would later become part of the Museum’s collection. The sculpture allows us to see how different people experience and visually interpret certain myths, like that of the mermaid.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland