In Focus: The Ernie Grant Collection

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

In 2016, the Queensland Museum purchased a collection of items from Jirrbal Elder, Dr Ernie Grant.

The Ernie Grant Collection, now housed at Museum of Tropical Queensland, represents the cultural and social life of Ernie Grant and his family. Although a small collection, it is personal and unique.

The objects in the Museum’s Ernie Grant Collection include boomerangs, shields, a ceramic shield created by artist Danie Mellor, firesticks, a shadow box and baskets – these are representative of Ernie’s wider personal collection, and document key moments in Ernie’s life and work.

These particular objects were collected over decades, and over that time they have been carefully curated by Ernie. As curator and custodian, Ernie recorded all the information possible about these objects, including where and when they were made, who made the objects, the history of use, and associated stories. The collection stands out amongst the many items in the museum, which have been disconnected from their cultural identity, makers, and communities from which they originated.

Ernie is a Jirrbal man from Tully in Far North Queensland. He has worked widely across Queensland, particularly in the Tully and Innisfail regions. In his early days, Ernie worked for the Railways, and for government departments controlling noxious weeds.

From there, he worked in the timber industry in Papua New Guinea, and in 1991 joined the Queensland Education Department as a Cultural Research Officer based in Cairns.

Ernie’s work in the Queensland Education system has made a significant impact in the way language and culture are taught in the Queensland curriculum. He was instrumental in the development of holistic planning and teaching frameworks, for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledge in the education system.

Ernie has also collaborated with the Tasmanian Education Department, South Australian Museum and the National Library of Australia, and received national and international recognition for his life’s work.

The following four items from the Ernie Grant Collection were selected to provide an insight into the types of culturally significant objects Ernie curated throughout his lifetime.

Ceramic Shield

ceramic shield

This ceramic shield was made by artist Danie Mellor. The shield echoes the styles of traditional rainforest shields of the Murray Upper Region in North Queensland. Significantly, Danie gifted this item to Ernie Grant, to recognise Ernie’s crucial role in helping Danie understand his personal history and develop his art practice.

Shadow Box


This three-tiered shadow box is constructed using several pieces of wood shaped as boomerangs, spearthrowers and clap sticks. The shadow box is painted and features motifs of fish, goanna, snake, platypus, and turtle.

Shadow boxes are a contemporary form of Aboriginal artwork, and were originally produced in the 1970s at the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. Shadow boxes are a representational artwork of Aboriginal culture, featuring scaled down versions of cultural objects such as boomerangs, spear throwers and shields.

Shadow boxes were often displayed in family homes, and were rarely sold outside communities; they were not produced as souvenirs, but as cultural representation. Ernie purchased this from a community artist and kept it in his collection for over 40 years.


shield 40767 b


This item was made sometime between 1959 and 1989. Ernie stipulated that this type of shield was made by boys before they became men. It is much smaller than traditional rainforest shields.

Firestick (Bagu)


This Firestick was made in the late nineteenth century. The Firestick is traditionally made up of two parts – the Bagu (body) and the Jiman (sticks).

The Bagu is made in the form of a man, and the patterned designs represent the fire spirit – who would take the Jiman, throw them across the sky, and leave behind a trail of fire.

See some of the contemporary artworks inspired by Bagu at the Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre:

Keep an eye out for the rest of the Ernie Grant Collection on the Queensland Museum Network Collections Online.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator, Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland


One thought on “In Focus: The Ernie Grant Collection

  1. Sophie, a great piece!
    Beautifully, intelligently and sensitively written – great selection of objects!
    Well done

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