In her position as Assistant Curator, Anthropology Sophie manages and cares for the unique, complex and extensive anthropology and social history collections at Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.
What is your favourite object/species in the collection and why?
This is always a hard question – I have too many favourite objects to count!
One of them is this incredible protest sign that we collected in September 2019, from the School Strike for Climate march in Townsville. The student who made the sign, Alice de Fouchier, was only 6 years old at the time, and had already carried her sign in three rallies before this one. The sign was collected along with two others, which are now housed at the museum.
Another of my favourite items is this gorgeous little turtle, originally from Tappoear (Campbell) Island in the Torres Strait. It died at around 6 months old, when tainted water was accidentally added to the tank. It was then sent to Thursday Island to be preserved.
The preservation process is a little morbid – but bear with me!
A small incision was made across the throat, and the insides removed. The turtle was then stuffed with torn pieces of newspaper to maintain the shape, the throat sewn shut with cotton thread and a curved needle, and the turtle dried in the sun for three weeks before being covered in varnish.
It was then used as a decoration in the home. I’m not a huge fan of taxidermy, but I’m a big lover of turtles, so I’ve always had a soft spot for this little one.
Do you have any interesting facts about your specialty area?
Did you know that most of the items in the cultural collections at the museum don’t have any record of who made them?
Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual thing to find when looking at colonial museum collections.
It’s certainly something to reflect on, and is a cornerstone in rethinking museum practices and record keeping procedures.
Instead of thinking that the artists or makers of these items are ‘unknown’, we like to think of them as ‘once known’. This change in mindset gives agency back to the communities where the items came from.
Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love working in this specific research area?
There’s two main things I love about working in museums and anthropology. One, there’s always a bit of a mystery to it. A lot of my research looks at re-contextualising collections, and tracking the history of when and where items were made, who by, and how they ended up in the museum.
Unfortunately, records are not always kept when they should be, so it’s often a bit of a journey or a treasure hunt to find any answers to these questions. But it’s so satisfying when you uncover a little more of the puzzle, and can reconnect object’s with their ‘biographies’.
Secondly, it is an absolute privilege to work with items that have such deep connections to people. Working in anthropology means working with people, creating touchpoints between museums and communities, and helping to create connections between stories, knowledge and things.
What is one of the most interesting facts you have discovered through working at the museum?
That most museums only ever display about 2-4% of the collections they hold. It’s one thing to hear that statistic, but when you walk through a collection store and see the amazing size of the collections, it can blow you away.
For context, there are over 10,000 individual artefacts in the collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Cultures & Histories alone – this doesn’t take into account the thousands of biodiversity and geoscience specimens!
What is your favourite gallery/exhibition at the museum (current or past) and why?
One of my favourite exhibitions hosted by the Queensland Museum Network was at the Southbank campus in 2018 – it was called 660: Calling Home.
The display exhibited 12 artworks which were created by emerging Indigenous artists, and which were inspired by the State Collection at the museum.
A key part of the exhibition – and from which it got its namesake – was the work 660, created by Aidan Rowlingson, which featured a necklace containing 660 individually sculpted beads depicting human remains.
Rowlingson’s artwork was a direct response to the repatriation program at the Queensland Museum, highlighting the 660 Indigenous ancestral remains currently held by the museum and in the care of the active repatriation program.
In his words, “repatriation is a responsibility that museums, institutions and Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders must wear”.