5 minutes with Judith Hickson, Curator of Social History

What is your favourite object in the collection and why?

There’s so many great stories and objects from the Queensland Museum Network Collection that spring to mind making it difficult to choose, so I’ll go with the first object donated to Queensland Museum’s social history collection on 11 October 1876 – a letter from Sir Walter Scott to Mr George Harper donated by George’s son John Howdy Harper.

Born in 1802 near Abbotsford, Roxburghshire, Scotland, George Harper was a public servant, natural history collector and settler. On emigrating to Sydney in 1921, George, a former gardener for Sir Walter, was provided with introductions to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and to Macquarie’s successor, Thomas Brisbane. During his time in Australia, George wrote a series of letters to Sir Walter, most of which are now held in the National Library of Scotland. On his return to England in 1827, George took with him ‘one of the finest collections of natural curiosities that have ever been made within the Colony’, including almost seventeen hundred bird skins.

As a gift to his benefactor, George also brought two live emus, or ‘emusses’ as Sir Walter mistakenly called them. Believing them to be some kind of large parrot, Sir Walter agreed to accept them thinking ‘they would hang well enough in the hall amongst the armour’. To Scott’s dismay, he soon discovered that ‘your Emus it seems stands six feet high on his stocking soles and is little better than a kind of Kassowari or Ostrich…. No – I’ll no Emusses!’  The hapless emus eventually found a home with the Duke of Buccleuch at Dalkeith Palace.

This story was told during a talk delivered by New Zealand historian, Dr Ewan Morris, to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club in 2018.

Do you have any interesting facts about your specialty area?

In the first twenty-five years of the museum’s existence, less than two hundred objects came into the social history collection.  At the time, the anthropological, geological and biological collections were identified as core collecting areas for the museum. Collecting social history didn’t then exist, so objects were relegated to a section with the imaginative title, ‘Curios, Machinery, Weapons and Furniture’. Among these were a pair of ‘Hindoo’ bracelets, a leather water bottle from ‘Soudan’, an ivory pagoda from China and a collection of Egyptian pottery – the types of objects which suggest that locally owned or produced objects or artefacts were not considered especially significant or interesting. 

Today, the social history collection holds over 45,000 objects – many of which are rare and of great historical significance and as a whole articulate an extraordinarily diverse and wide-ranging narrative of the individual and collective experiences of Queensland since European settlement.

The heaviest object in the collection is the First World War German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank, Mephisto.  Most people are familiar with Mephisto, but maybe not with the largest item – a Beechcraft Duke 60 aircraft with total wingspan of 11.96m (39ft 3in), length 10.31m (33ft 10in) and height 3.76m (12ft 4in). This is the aeroplane in which Battle of Britain pilot Denys Dalton captured seven world records for piston-engine aircraft between 1973 and 1975. Most notable among these was the around the world speed record of 122 hours 19 minutes 57 seconds, in which Mr Dalton and his co-pilot Terry Gwynn-Jones flew from Brisbane between 20 and 25 July 1975.

Social History Collection Manager Peter Volk suspects that the smallest objects are probably embroidery needles. There are also collections of miniaturised objects such as the Beyer collection of miniature shoes and boots, a large collection of miniature porcelain, Brisbane saddler, Richard Jarman’s miniature saddles made in 1895, miniature cameras, sewing machines, portraits, coins, medals and other assorted objects.

We have quite a few weird and strange items, however one that comes to mind is the cane toad diorama featuring taxidermied cane toads dressed up as convicts and guards.  The diorama was made by Queensland taxidermist, Ken Ladynski who produced several cane toad dioramas using taxidermy techniques. Ladynski established a Travelling Toad Show featuring his dioramas which was unsuccessful in Queensland.

The most common items would have to be Mrs Potts irons, sewing machines, gestetner duplicators, typewriters, pipes, matchboxes, bottles are ubiquitous in this as in most historical collections.

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

As a social history curator, my job is collect, document, research and write about objects – who owned them and why, their meaning or purpose (or in some cases, purposelessness) – and then to ground this in the historical and social contexts in which they were made, acquired, owned, used and so on.

In the past, our social history collections were primarily focussed on Queensland objects and stories, but with rapidly evolving ideas and understandings about what museums are and what purpose they serve, my work is increasingly focussed on broader changes and events happening throughout Australia and the world. I love this work first of all because it focuses my attention on ideas, things and people I would otherwise never have heard or learnt about. I love the fact that one tiny, seemingly insignificant object can contain a universe of meaning and that it’s my job to find that meaning and then to allow others share and enjoy that knowledge as well. I love that we can give a voice to so many people whose lives and achievements would otherwise go unnoticed. 

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

My favourite thing about my work is the amazing people and stories I work with and meet.  Though it’s clichéd, but never so important as this current COVID-19 pandemic makes clear, everyone in the world is fundamentally connected and dependent on each other, and all have stories to tell.  I’m also in awe of the knowledge, talents and skills of other staff who I’m privileged to work with, and of their dedication to the museum and to their jobs.

What is one of the most interesting facts you have discovered through working at the museum?

Every day is a new discovery! One of the best, but most unexpected, was the size and scope of the social history collection because I had always thought of Queensland Museum primarily as a natural history collection.

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

In the past five years since I’ve worked at the museum, my favourite exhibitions have been the most recent – I Do! Wedding stories from Queensland and Spiders – The ExhibitionSpiders was just so imaginative, educational, fun and appealing to all ages and people (even me, who doesn’t like spiders and couldn’t imagine the appeal of such an exhibition).

And of course, because I was privileged to be a co-curator of I Do! I was able to immerse myself in the personal stories behind the wedding gowns and objects on display and to explore the wonderful histories, cultures and traditions associated with each.

Learn more about Judith Hickson here.