5 minutes with Jennifer High, Senior Curator of Transport and Energy

What is your favourite object in the collection and why?

My favourites are those that look uneventful, but actually have a large story behind them with links to numerous people, events and places. For example, two wooden straight edges, made from the broken propeller of Vickers Vimy G-EAOU, flown by Ross Smith and Keith Smith from England to Australia in 1919. During the flight from Darwin to Melbourne, the port-side engine and propeller were damaged. In January 1920, the engine was sent to the Ipswich Railway Workshops for repairs and a new propeller was made there.

The Workshops staff did not have patterns or drawings to work from, so they copied the existing parts. According to Workshops records, the Pattern Shop used “nine layers of Queensland maple, stuck together with hot animal glue” to make the new propeller, and the story is an illustration of the old saying that “the Ipswich Railway Workshops could make anything.” Made with Queensland timber and using Queensland ingenuity, the new propeller spun on the Vickers Vimy until the aircraft underwent further repairs.

Guy Page, an Ipswich Workshops Pattern Maker who worked on the new propeller, souvenired two pieces of timber from the damaged Vickers Vimy propeller and made them into straight edges, using them for his trade. Both were donated to Queensland Museum in 1976 (H11249 and H11250).

The idea of the Ipswich Railway Workshops being involved in the history of the Vickers Vimy aircraft is not obvious at first, but it’s a great story. Although the events and donations were significant in Queensland history long before The Workshops Rail Museum was a Queensland Museum Network campus, they now hold a particular resonance in the collection.

Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love working in this specific research area?

Stories about transport and energy across Queensland, past and present, help us to understand how people, communities, places and events are connected. When looking at a vehicle – whether rail, road or water – we consider how and where it was made, and what its purpose was; how far it travelled, where it started from and what its destination was; how often the vehicle needed to stop on its journey to refuel or change animals; whether it carried cargo or passengers or both, and what were the other choices available at the time for moving those passengers or cargo; what buildings and infrastructure were part of the journey of the vehicle and its cargo and passengers; and when was this vehicle retired or replaced by a new vehicle, possibly a new or alternate technology?

When considering all of these questions and many more, we can end up following journeys and stories that reveal how the locations and distances between towns and cities were determined; the development and decline of vehicle manufacturing industries; the creativeness of entrepreneurs and inventors; the affordability of one form of transport compared to another; the impact of government taxation, legislation and elections; the effects of floods, cyclones and droughts; animal care and workers’ rights.

Do you have any interesting facts about your specialty area?

Transport and energy are industries that create and leave behind large amounts of material culture – large in size and number. Queensland Museum Network collections include hundreds of small objects like tickets, tools, cutlery and crockery, toys and models, uniforms, ledgers, photographs, spare parts and instruction manuals. The collection includes vehicles of many shapes and sizes, with our heaviest being two diesel locomotives, both about 87 tonnes each. The Workshops Rail Museum is also fortunate to be housed in historic buildings from Queensland’s railway industry, including the Boiler Shop and the Powerhouse.

Queensland’s transport and energy history is full of many ‘firsts’, and journeys extensive in both distance and longevity. In aviation, it was the founding home of Qantas and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The town of Thargominda in South-West Queensland was one of the first in the world to have hydro-electric power in 1893. When the Tilt Train started operating between Brisbane and Rockhampton, it was the fastest train in Australia, setting a record of 210 km/h in 1999 which still stands. Cobb & Co coaches operated in conjunction with railways from its beginnings in Queensland in 1866, just after Queensland’s first rail line opened between Ipswich and Grandchester (Bigge’s Camp). Australia’s last Cobb & Co’s last horse-drawn coach service, between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland, ceased in 1924.

What is your favourite thing about your role at the museum? Why?

Meeting great people. I work with people across the Queensland Museum Network and I meet and correspond with people from many different communities across Queensland and Australia. The opportunities to hear and record stories, to understand events and landscapes, and then share that knowledge with the wider community is a privilege.

What is your favourite gallery/exhibition at the museum (current or past) and why?

Anything where there is a vehicle really. The Vehicle Gallery at Cobb+Co Museum will always be special to me as the place I started volunteer work there back in high school. One of my favourites was the old ‘Transport Hall’ at Queensland Museum where in one space there were aircraft, marine vessels, horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles and motorcycles, bicycles, steam engines and various other objects and stories. Seeing them altogether like that is part of the reason I am doing this job today. At The Workshops Rail Museum it’s our ‘Might and Muscle’ exhibition, revamped in 2020. Walking around those vehicles and understanding the large networks and industries they were part of helps provide a sense of scale for the humans and landscapes in those stories.

Learn more about Jennifer High here.