All posts by qldmuseum

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today we acknowledge International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Did you know there are 370 million Indigenous peoples belonging to 5000 different cultures across 90 countries with over 7000 languages spoken?  Indigenous peoples, also known as First peoples, Aboriginal peoples or Native peoples, are ethnic groups who are the original settlers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently. Queensland Museum holds Indigenous collections belonging to Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and the Pacific peoples.

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Shell Pendant – Pictured with the raw materials used to make the artefact, this ochre decorated Windowpane Oyster (Placuna placenta) pendant was designed and made in 2018 by Umpila, Yirrganydji/Djabugay artist Bernard Lee Singleton. The pendant is an early experimental artwork created as part of an artistic process to learn and adapt traditional techniques.

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Dance Headdress – This Torres Strait Islander headdress, made by Audi Gibuma is known as a dhari or dhoeri, is a distinctive traditional dance and ceremonial adornment.

We also hold a World Cultures collection with artefacts from Indigenous cultures from North and South America, Africa and Asia. Pictured below are some amazing artefacts from that collection.

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Native American Blanket –  Gifted to Queensland Museum Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Consultative Committee by W. Richard West, Director of the Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA, at a public lecture at the Queensland Museum in 2006.

Inuit Dog Sled Whip and Sled Reins Toggles- The 12 metre long whip is a traditionally crafted device that reflects knowledge and culture that values the husky dog as partner in the important community tasks of hunting and transportation.

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Kalahari San Collection  – Recently donated to the museum, these artefacts belong to First Nation peoples of Southern Africa. Known as Kalahari Bushmen, this Indigenous community have been severely impacted by loss of culture and traditional lands, due to enforced government mandated programs.

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African Maasai Sandals – These handcrafted sandals made from recycled motorcycle tyres, were owned and worn by a Maasai Warrior our very own QM staff member, who walked out of his home village of Kiserian, Tanzania and immigrated to Brisbane in 2009, wearing these sandals.

Carved Ivory Tusk –  Crafted in an African village for the tourist market, this artefact was acquired by the museum in 1985 as part of a customs seizure. Due to external pressures and loss of traditional cultural lifestyle, often African communities seek alternative methods of income to sustain their families and communities. The trade in elephant ivory has led to the decline of elephant populations in many countries and the trade is now banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species commonly referred to as CITIES.

Sample Bags Steal the Show

For the people of Brisbane, the Ekka has been a major event on the calendar for over 130 years, with many attending year after year – no doubt for the Dagwood dogs, strawberry sundaes and of course, showbags – or sample bags as they were once called in the 1920s.

A Brief History of the Ekka

The Royal Queensland Show, affectionately nicknamed the Ekka, is a 10 day annual exhibition that commences on the second Thursday of August held at the RNA showgrounds in Brisbane. The first show was the Queensland Intercolonial Exhibition held in 1876, following the formation of the National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland in 1875.

The show was intended to promote not just local industries, but also to showcase the agricultural, pastoral and industrial resources of the whole of Queensland, and this has continued to be the key purpose of the show. But the social aspects are just as important. It’s a place where city and country people come together and for many years, the annual showbags have been a highlight of Queensland’s social scene.

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Show Favourites: Sample Bags

Sample bags began to appear from the mid-1920s and were designed to provide samples of the goods of many different manufacturers and organisations. The first sample bags contained local coal and crushed quartz, then later stocked baking ingredients, miniature cans of fruit and lollies, whereas today you’ll find chocolate, toys and retail products dominate the contents.

The Chantler Family’s Show Bag Collection

Showbags collected by the Chantler family from Red Hillwere donated to the museum by their cousin. It is not known which of the Chantler family was the showbag collector, but the collection is both distinctive – in the number of showbags collected – and representative, in the way it reflects the interest of many in collecting showbags as mementoes of their annual visits to the Ekka.

These paper showbags are likely from the 1960s or 70s, before plastic bags started to be used around the 1980s. The Cherry Ripe bag indicates the showbags were pre 1967, before Cadbury acquired MacRobertson’s Steam Confectionery Works. Do you remember when Cadbury Crunchies only cost 10 cents?

Snapshots in Time

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.

You don’t often go to a new place without seeing at least one postcard for sale. Beaches, small towns, big cities – there’s always a tourist shop, and there’s always a postcard stand. I myself have a series of postcards on my fridge, parading beautiful sights my friends and family have visited – my favourite being a picture of a fluffy sheep in front of the rolling hills of New Zealand.

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This postcard shows scenes much closer to home. The postcard was originally purchased by the late Lloyd Noel Vickers during his time stationed in Townsville in the mid-1940s as a member of the Australian Armed Forces.  Fold out postcards allowed people to send their loved ones multiple images at a time, rather than the single image postcards of today.

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Lloyd Noel Vickers, photographed at time of enlistment in Bendigo, Victoria by renowned wartime photographer William Vincent Kelly. During WW2, Townsville was the major North Queensland base for both Australian and US forces and had 11 operational airstrips within the city. Vickers was stationed at one of these during his time with the Air Force. The postcard was kept by Vickers as a memento of his time in Townsville.

This photograph and the postcard were recently donated to the Museum of Tropical Queensland by Vickers’ daughter, Denise Mitchell (Vickers), in memory of her father.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

Manufactured and distributed in the 1940s, the images of Townsville featured on the postcard depict a place very different from today.  The images used on this postcard depict significant locations throughout the city. Have a closer look at some of these sites, and try to spot the similarities and differences between their 1940s context, and their position in Townsville today.

Railway

Railway station

Built in 1913, the Great Northern Railway Station was well-known to the many soldiers who travelled to and from Townsville by train during WW2, and is featured in many commemorative photographs from the end of the war. The station closed in 2003, when the new railway line was built. Today, the building is used by Queensland Rail as both a travel centre and office space.

Castle Hill

Castle Hill NEw

Another photo captures the Castle Hill lookout. The road to the lookout was developed as part of a Great Depression unemployment relief project, and officially opened in the year 1937. Today, visitors frequent the lookout by car, or by navigating one of the many designated hiking trails that traverse up the sides of the hill.

Victoria Bridge

Victoria Bridge NEW

One of Townsville’s oldest bridges, Victoria Bridge opened in 1889 to connect the port on Ross Island to the Townsville CBD. The bridge became Queensland’s sole swing bridge during the years 1889-1925, and closed to traffic in 1975, when the George Robert’s bridge opened. Victoria Bridge was revamped and reopened as a pedestrian bridge in 2001.

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Flinders St

The Townsville Post Office (left), built in 1886, is a heritage-listed building that now houses the Townsville Brewery. In 1942, the clock tower was dismantled after the bombing of Darwin; as a significant landmark in Townsville’s city centre, and because of the building’s status as a communications centre, it was also considered a possible target. In the 1960s, the tower was modified by JE Allen & Co., and soon became the prime location for political rallies because of its central position in the Townsville CBD. The building was redeveloped as the Townsville Brewery in 2001. The Union Bank building (right) was built in 1885 and established as the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in 1981.

JUST LIKE YOU WERE THERE

The images on this postcard were produced from black and white negatives and then hand-coloured to bring life to the photographs. Hand-coloured images let manufacturers over-saturate the photographs with colour, to create a more ‘realistic’ visual experience. A range of pigments were used to create the vivid colours: oils, watercolours, dyes, crayons or pastels. The production of hand-coloured photographs generally stopped in the 1950s, when colour film became more available and the preferred method. However, many countries continued to hand-colour images because it was too expensive to obtain and produce colour film; in several places, this process was practiced as late as the 1980s. The 1970s also saw a resurgence in the technique, with trends in collecting antiques taking hold and a market opening for these types of hand-coloured images.

Murray Views, Gympie, was the key manufacturer for souvenir postcards during this period. Fred Murray opened Murray Studios in Gympie in 1906, initially only producing products for the Gympie region and surrounding areas. In 1929, the company changed to Murray Views, and was soon creating souvenir images and postcards from as far as Cairns to Grafton, with each photograph captured by Fred and his team. Fold out poster production began at the company in the mid-1940s, when Murray’s nephews took over the company.

MULTIPLE STORIES

This postcard is significant to the collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland for several reasons. The images provide a contrast between historical locations in the Townsville region that are still some of the main tourist locations today, and the techniques used to create the postcard give us insight into both image and souvenir manufacturing in the mid-20th century. It also encourages us to think about the situation in which Mr Vickers might have purchased the object, during his years spent in Townsville. By looking at these images, we can gain a sense of both time and place.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland

Recreating the past

By Dr Elizabeth Bissell, Senior Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum and Solitaire Osei, Senior Conservator, Textiles, Queensland Museum

When Queensland Museum’s long-awaited Anzac Legacy Gallery opened its doors in November 2018, visitors may have been surprised to see a women’s mourning suit displayed near Mephisto, the rarest tank in the world.

The suit was made for Mrs Christina Massey of Mayfield Road, Belmont, by Janet Walker, a popular Brisbane dressmaker during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Christina Woolridge was born in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, around 1865. She immigrated to Australia and married Thomas Massey at Roma in 1888. They had four children – James, Heywood, Helen, and Thomas Junior. Christina’s eldest son Heywood (known as Woodie) was serving in France with the 31st Battalion when his father passed away in Brisbane in 1918. It’s possible that Mrs Massey wore the mourning suit to her husband’s funeral that same year.

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Mrs Christina Massey and Mr Thomas Massey

The mourning suit is an important object to have in the gallery because it represents one woman’s story, but also the stories of many women – mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts – who lost loved ones during the First World War. It also reflects a particular time in Queensland, and how the war affected social customs. Because there was such an unprecedented amount of death during World War 1, Victorian mourning customs, which were very elaborate and public, were replaced by more private, modest acknowledgements as whole communities mourned. The silk satin suit reflects the design and styling that was popular during the war years, comprised of a jacket and skirt of simple design lines with military-like braid and button decoration.

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Christina and daughter Helen

The fabric of the original suit was deteriorating and too fragile to go on display so it was painstakingly re-created by Queensland Museum Textiles Conservator Solitaire Osei. The process of reconstructing the suit was a challenge she hadn’t faced before, but with her textile conservation experience and training in fashion construction, Solitaire knew it was achievable.

I spent a total of 420 hours re-creating the suit in matching materials. Starting with a thorough analysis of every fabric, thread and stitch, I was able to piece together how it was originally constructed. It wasn’t an easy process, however. Normally you start with people’s measurements to make a dress, but I had to go the other way as I had no idea what size or shape Mrs Massey was. So, after numerous measurements were taken, I drafted patterns and set out to reconstruct the mourning suit made by Janet Walker one hundred years ago.

When recreating the suit, it was the braid on the jacket back that proved the most difficult to obtain. The braid wasn’t available anywhere as it was made more than a century ago, so I had to break down the components of the braid and source the material. I ended up finding it at a military store in the UK and I then had to teach myself how to braid it and constructed a replica.

With the reproduction complete and ready for display, I still had a few unanswered questions. It was my hope that one of Mrs Massey’s descendants could shed some light about the alterations made to the garment, which were found during the reconstruction process. However, the process of tracking down descendants was complicated. The relationship of the donor to the Massey family wasn’t recorded at the time of the donation and the curatorial team were unable to trace living descendants through desk-based research, which led them to seek a broader audience through a media call out.

Postcard sent to Christina from Woodie during WW1
Postcard sent to Christina from Woodie during WW1

Fortunately, Peta Geisel, Christina’s great granddaughter, contacted Queensland Museum within hours of hearing the call-out on ABC Radio Brisbane.

She and her late mother Erna Olsen (daughter of Helen Wruck nee Massey) had donated the gown in 2008. Ms Geisel said the dress had sat for many years among the Christmas decorations at the top of her mother’s cupboard in Eudlo near the Sunshine Coast, before she housed it at her home in The Gap until the time of the donation.

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Christina and daughter Helen

In September 2018, Queensland Museum hosted a morning tea for the family, including Peta Geisel, her daughter Jasmin Forsyth and granddaughter Asha. Peta’s brother Jason Olsen also attended, as well as a nephew Adam Craven. The family admired the reproduction and viewed the original suit, which prompted a few memories. Peta described dressing up in the suit as a child and even wore it on horseback in a parade one day, resulting in a rip in the skirt that is still there today.

“I have many memories of my sister and I trying on this dress,” said Peta.

“However, back then, we had no idea it held such historical value. Granny Massey’s dress has such a story to tell, and I’m delighted to be learning even more about it, as this journey continues.”

Peta used to be a dressmaker herself, so was especially interested in the reproduction process.

“Solitaire’s work is outstanding,” she said.

“You can see in the detail, her level of skill and passion for this project.”

A large part of the curatorial team’s work on the Anzac Legacy Gallery has involved tracking down and meeting with descendants of those people whose stories are featured. Consultation and collaboration are so important when designing a gallery, and we try to find someone related to every single object we display. Stories enrich objects, providing context and connection.

Read more about the Anzac Legacy Gallery here.

 

Tune in to early TV transmission in Queensland

by Peter Volk, Assistant Collection Manager, Social History, Queensland Museum

On 1st July 1959, nearly 60 years ago, Brisbane television station QTQ9 went on the air. A few months later, on 2nd November, ABQ2 started broadcasting as well. If you are of the right age, you can remember growing up on a steady diet of 1960’s era TV, all served in black and white, with monophonic sound, all delivered on a 576 line screen.

However, QTQ9 wasn’t the first TV station in Queensland, not by a long way. TV transmission in Queensland started on 10th April 1934, and the first TV broadcast license was issued to radio station 4CM in 1935.

What did TV look like in those days, and why did it take 25 years (!) before it became generally available?

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Nipkow DIsk and Photocell used for the first successful transmission of a television signal in Queensland on 10 April 1934. This was the heart of the TV system. The rapidly spinning disk with pinholes in the rim scanned the subject with a moving dot of light, and the “TV Eye” acted as the camera. It was a simple photocell that measured the light intensity and output a proportional electrical signal. Notice the use of cotton reels and Meccano in the construction of the supports and frame.

Experimental radio station 4CM broadcast from the convict-built Old Windmill on Wickham Terrace in Brisbane. The initial TV experiments were made late in the evening after the radio station had gone off the air. Dr Val McDowall, who owned the radio station, worked with Thomas Elliott, a local engineer and one of Queensland’s first licensed HAM radio operators, to build a TV transmitter. There were no standard components for such a thing at the time. This technology was beyond the cutting edge, so they had to improvise. The transmitter included wooden cotton reels, parts from a Meccano set and hand-cut aluminium disks. They worked with another gentleman named Alan Campbell, who went on to be a co-founder of QTQ-9. Mr Campbell had a TV receiver that was an equally home-made affair, with a screen 11 cm wide, about the size of a mobile phone screen today. Together these three men made history.

The first successful transmission of a television signal in Queensland was made on 10 April 1934, and was picked up in Mr Campbell’s home at Wilston.  The first image seen was that of Mickey Mouse, followed by a picture of actress Janet Gaynor. The first news transmission took place on 9 October 1935 with a reading from a section of a local newspaper. The first entertainment included cartoons of Mickey Mouse, and a film called “The Chocolate Soldier,” using a projector Mr Campbell had built.

The TV signal could be charitably described as low resolution. The more scan lines a TV has the better the picture is. A modern hi-definition TV has a minimum of 720 scan lines, and more commonly 1096. 4000 line (4K) TV’s are available now, and 8000 line sets (8K) are entering the market. The old B&W TVs had 576 lines. The early TV signal from 4CM’s apparatus had 30, though a later version of the equipment used a 180 line scan.

The early 30 line transmissions used a rather long radio wavelength, which gave them a good range. It was reported that 4CM had been picked up by receivers in Melbourne. Soon after, along with the shift to 180 line scans, the transmission frequency was raised. The resolution of the image was now much better, but the range was reduced to about 25 miles.

H44978.6 & 7 dThe receivers were about the size of a regular computer monitor, but most of that size went to housing the mechanical works. The actual image size was very small by comparison – from the size of a large postage stamp to the size of a mobile phone screen.

Nipkow DIsk and Photocell used for the first successful transmission of a television signal in Queensland on 10 April 1934. This was the heart of the TV system. The rapidly spinning disk with pinholes in the rim scanned the subject with a moving dot of light, and the “TV Eye” acted as the camera. It was a simple photocell that measured the light intensity and output a proportional electrical signal. Notice the use of cotton reels and Meccano in the construction of the supports and frame

This was a mechanical TV system, of the type championed and improved by John Logie Baird in the UK. The core of the TV was a spinning disk, called a Nipkow disk, with a series of holes in the rim of the disk forming a spiral. The subject was seated in near darkness, and a very bright light (usually an arc lamp) projected a pinhole sized spot of light through the holes in the rim of the Nipkow disk. The disk was spun very rapidly by an electric motor. The spacing of the holes meant that only one pinhole passed in front of the subject at a time, and the spiral pattern of the holes meant that each hole passed over a different part of the subject, moving from left to right until the whole subject had been scanned once. The wheel had then done one rotation, and on the next the subject was scanned again.

This scanning process became known as the “flying spot” technique. It was used in early broadcast TV up until 1938, in some places, and is occasionally used for specialist applications today.

Close-up view of the scanning disk. Everything was hand-built from what was available.

A photocell measured the intensity of the light reflected from the subject, and sent a signal to a second light source (usually a neon lamp) that varied in intensity according to the signal. When one looked at the second light source through a similar Nipkow disk spinning in synchronisation with the first, one saw a copy of the original signal. The trick was sending that light intensity signal to the second light source over a radio. If one can do that, one is transmitting TV. Audio was transmitted as a radio signal over a different frequency.

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It seemed that the Brisbane experimenters had the core of a successful television system. They commenced regular TV transmissions, for an hour every evening from 7:30 PM. Initially everyone had to build their own receiver from scratch, but with a bit of time and capital receivers could have been manufactured and sold to the general public. Commercial broadcasting and professionally made receivers were both available in the UK from 1929. However, the steady development and deployment of the technology was stopped dead by World War 2.

When war broke out in 1939 Australia, like the UK, withdrew all the broadcasting licenses for experimental radio and TV groups and put all their scientific efforts into military projects. The people who had been working on TV transmission had made themselves the best in Australia at cutting edge radio technology. Instead of broadcasting Mickey Mouse cartoons they found themselves working on radio and radar projects for the military. TV research went into suspension around the world – except for experiments with TV guided bombs. After the war the 4CM TV crew found that their lives had taken different directions, and the band never got back together. Additionally, mechanical TV had fallen by the wayside and been replaced by TV that used an electrically scanning cathode ray tube for the transmitter and receiver. This led to one of the first format wars, where various nations could not agree on the number of scan lines, the number of frames per second and other technical details. Australia as a whole was uncertain as to which technology to adopt. There was also dispute about how the TV industry should be organised. The British model had the government, through the BBC, running the TV stations and the U.S. model had the stations owned and run by private industry.  After much argument in Parliament the Federal Government made the firm, principled and determined choice to have five bob each way and do both. Additionally, in the early 1950’s Australia was in a recession and the capital and skills needed to develop a new industry weren’t available until later in the decade.

This early TV transmission equipment found its way to the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, and from them to the Queensland Museum, where it is preserved today. As far as is known, none of the early TV receivers have been preserved anywhere in Queensland.

A piece of our early solar system

By Dr Andrew Christy, Senior Curator, Mineralogy, Queensland Museum Network.

When I started work at Queensland Museum Network two years ago, little did I know that a newly acquired object in a safe at Hendra, would trigger research into a new area, one that has fascinated me for many years.

Georgetown Meteorite 2, QMD20041

The object, a mass with a flaky, rusty crust, about 20 centimetres across and weighing more than 15 kilograms, had been brought in for study by a couple who had been fossicking for gold in North Queensland, near Georgetown. Using a metal detector, they had found a substantial piece of metal buried more than a metre beneath the surface. It was not gold. They wondered if it was a meteorite.

The first clue occurred during retrieval when hammering had broken off some rust and showed a grainy, crystalline texture in the metal underneath. Slow cooling over millions of years creates large metal crystals in many iron meteorites, something not found in a man-made artefact. True identification of a meteorite requires a petrological microscope or an electron microprobe that examines its characteristics. The only hitch was that the meteorite needs fresh material to be exposed. I asked the discoverers if they could saw off an end piece and also a thin “bread slice” for further research, which they did.

Georgetown Meteorite, QMD20041

The freshly cut surface showed not only that this was certainly a meteorite, but an unusual one. Most iron meteorites are composed almost entirely of steely metal alloys and related minerals. Almost a third of this meteorite was made up of a brittle, bronzy iron sulfide mineral called troilite. Encased in the troilite was a silvery metal which formed dendritic crystals, similar in shape to a staghorn coral. The large amount of troilite is unusual in a meteorite, suggesting it may have come from the very edge of the metal core of a former asteroid. Its significance was important in the research field because it could provide important information about the distribution of chemical elements during the formation of planetary bodies. Only half a dozen sulfide-rich meteorites like this are well described in scientific literature.

Meteorite - CEO, Senator Mitch Fifield, Australian Government,Mr Trevor Evans MP, Member for Brisbane, Assistant Minister Jennifer Howard, Qld Gov, Rob Adlard

In the meantime, I have collected data which will soon be collated into a scientific paper, once I have bulk average trace element concentrations, essential for classifying the meteorite properly and possibly matching it up with one of the known groups that have originated from various distinct parent bodies.

The announcement of our purchase has stimulated interest amongst other fossickers, and a few other meteorites have since been found in the area and may be of the same type. In fact, they may all be parts of a single large incoming object that exploded in mid-air, and a small portion of one of these meteorites has been donated for that comparison. I am looking forward to obtaining the results soon – stay tuned for the findings!

Meteorite - CEO

Did you know?

Meteorites are pieces of other planets or minor planets (parent bodies) that have landed here on Earth after being detached through impacts in outer space. Most come from asteroids that circle the Sun between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter, although a small number have arrived from the Moon and from Mars.

Some of the parent bodies became hot enough during formation that their metallic components melted and concentrated inward to form a dense core of nickel-iron alloy surrounded by a ‘mantle’ of rocky silicate minerals, similar to the internal structure of the Earth. Others did not do this and retain the particles that formed them at the dawn of the Solar System. Those are the oldest known solid materials, condensed forms of the hot dust and gas of the early Solar Nebula before the Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago.

Studying meteorites through comparison with other planetary bodies that hold different histories gives us stories from further back in time than we could otherwise reach and allows us to better understand the development of the Earth.

Find a micrometeorite in your backyard

Chances are your house has been hit by a few thousand micrometeorites, and you’ll be able to find a few if you know the secret place to look, here’s what you need:

Materials

  • a strong magnet
  • two Ziploc bags
  • a small vial or third bag
  • a spoon or small spade

Method
1. Go outside and find the spillway of one of your house gutters. (There is normally a patch of dirt and somewhat rocky-looking debris.)

2. Use the spoon to scoop a small sample of this into the first Ziploc bag.

3. Take the sample to a good work area and empty it onto a paper plate. If the sample is wet, allow it to dry for a few minutes. Take the magnet and place it in the second Ziploc bag. This will stop small magnetic particles from sticking permanently to the magnet. Pass the bagged magnet over the dry sample.

4. Keep a look out for small rock-like particles “leaping” onto the bagged magnet. These little rocks contain metallic iron, not normally found in the soil, but a primary ingredient in most micrometeorites. Congratulations! You have discovered out-of-this-world rocks.

5. You can remove your micrometeorites from the outside of the magnet bag and store them in another bag or vial.

Vive la république!

By Judith Hickon, Curator, Social History, Queensland Museum

To commemorate Bastille Day we delved into the Museum’s collections to see what objects we could find which relate to this momentous event in French history.

The storming of the military fortress prison, the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, was a violent uprising against the monarchy that helped usher in the French Revolution. These coins and banknote from the numismatics collection combine to tell the story of the historic reign of Louis XVI from 1774 to his fateful end by beheading in Place de la Révolution in 1793.

French coin, 1 dram, 1774.  Collection: Queensland Museum. N2660.

The last King of France before the fall of the monarchy in the French Revolution, Louis XVI (1754 – 1793) ascended the throne of France in 1774 following the death of his grandfather, assuming the title ‘King of France and Navarre’. The coin above depicting a crowned shield on its obverse and an effigy of Louis XV on its reverse was minted in 1774. The words ‘France’ and ‘Navarre’ and 1774 are clearly visible along the outer edge of the coin.

Only nineteen years of age when he succeeded to the throne, Louis’ initial goodwill and attempts at reform during his rule were tempered by his indecisiveness and conservatism.  These traits later became seen as a symbol of the oppression and domination of the Ancien Régime (the political and social system of the Kingdom of France from the late 1400s until 1789) and led to a rapid decline in his popularity.

By 1789, despite looming economic disaster fuelled by enormous national debt (according to finance minister, Jacques Necker, over fifty-six million pounds) and disastrous crop yields in 1788 and 1789 leading to widespread famine and unemployment, Louis and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, refused to curb their extravagant spending. Following a series of violent food riots which erupted throughout France, unrest and protests continued to grow until July 14 when angry crowds gathered on the streets of Paris and stormed the Bastille, itself a symbol of the tyranny and cold-heartedness of the French aristocracy.

Assignats, inflation and the road to Revolution

Assignats were first issued in 1790 as a form of printed currency representing the value of church properties confiscated by the French government in an effort to overcome bankruptcy. As befitting his status as reigning monarch, a ‘portrait royale’ of Louis XVI was portrayed on the first assignats. Unfortunately for Louis, this royal portrait was instrumental in his final undoing.

From 1789 Louis’s authority steadily declined until, after an attack in October 1791, the family was forced to leave the Palace of Versailles and move to the Tuilleries Palace in Paris where they became virtual prisoners and experienced increasing hostility.  A fateful decision to flee with his family, ended in their capture. A chance encounter with Jean-Baptiste Drouet, postmaster of Sainte-Menehoulde, who recognised Louis from his portrait on an assignat, led to the family’s arrest in Varrennes and their return to imprisonment in Paris.

Devaluing the King

Louis XVI’s portrait soon disappeared from bank notes to be replaced by revolutionary symbols including  on France’s bank notes was soon replaced by a new series of notes containing Republican symbols and slogans propagandizing the new regime.

On the assignat (above, also from the Museum’s collections) Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture, is seated upon a central plinth with a spade and rooster, holding a laurel wreath in her outstretched hand. Two bundles of bound wooden rods, or fasces, and a Phrygian, or Liberty, cap is featured on the plinth above the words ‘Liberté Égalité’.  Though difficult to see from this image, an embossed seal on lower left of note depicts Hercules killing the Hydra. Epitomising strength and power, the symbol of the Greek hero, Hercules, was first adopted by the Ancien Régime to represent the sovereign authority of the French Monarchy and later appropriated by the Republican movement to symbolise the overthrow of the monarchy.

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French Revolutionary assignat de cinquante livres (50 pounds) 1792. Collection: Queensland Museum. N600.

As history has shown, printing more money has never solved an economic crisis …

Inevitably, a lack of government oversight led to the value of printed assignats exceeding that of the confiscated properties.  Following a devastating economic period caused by massive hyperinflation and further exacerbated by continuing food shortages, the abolition of the monarchy and Louis’ reign came to an end on 22 September 1792. The two sols coin, below, is dated 1792, the final year of Louis XVI’s reign. The coin obverse depicts a Liberty cap above a fasces surrounded by an oak wreath. On the reverse the ‘portrait royale’ of Louis XVI is still visible.

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was tried for high treason and executed by guillotine, under the name of ‘Citizen Louis Capet’. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason, and was beheaded on 16 October.

French coin, 2 sols, 1992. Collection: Queensland Museum. N2628.