Discover what goes on beyond our exhibition floors and past the security doors with our series of 24 podcast episodes.
Let’s start with an undeniable fact: Queensland is a big state. From Texas in the south to the Torres Strait 3000 kilometres to the north, from Fraser Island on the east coast to Camooweal in the far west. How does a state museum make sure that people who’d have to travel by plane or four-wheel drive vehicle – or both – to visit on one of its museums, can benefit like everyone else?
Digital technology certainly helps but Queensland Museum Network in conjunction with Arts Queensland have been running a program for over 20 years that gives people all across the state an opportunity to access museum expertise face-to-face.
Do you have a story to tell? Or do you need a grant, advice or training? You need a Museum Development Officer.
Ewen McPhee is the coordinator of Queensland Museum Network’s Museum Development Officer (MDO) Program. He is based at Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.
Ewen has had over 25 years’ experience working in the museum sector in Cultures and Histories, business management and visitor services. As an MDO, his focus and passion lies in assisting and supporting small museums and community collections across Queensland and further north to the Torres Strait.
Throughout Ewen’s career he has assisted hundreds of community institutions, museums and groups with their collections and helped them to better understand and communicate their unique stories to the public.
LC: Let’s start with an undeniable fact, Queensland is a big state from Texas in the south, the Torres Strait, three thousand kilometres to the north from Fraser Island on the East Coast to Camooweal in the far west. How does a state museum make sure that people who have to travel by plane or four wheel drive vehicle or both to visit one of its museums benefit like everybody else? Digital technology certainly helps, but Queensland Museum Network has been running a program for over 20 years that gives people all across the state an opportunity to access museum expertise face to face. Do you have a story to tell or do you need a grant, advice or training? You need a Museum Development Officer. Find out what it’s all about, with me, Laura Cantrell, museum graphic designer and sometimes podcast host and Ewen McPhee. Hi Ewen.
EM: Hi, Laura.
LC: You’re the manager of the Museum Development Officers, or MDOs, as we refer to them across the network. Can you tell us about the program?
EM: Certainly, Laura. The program has been going for over 20 years, as you say, and we have five of the officers in Queensland based in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Ipswich and Toowoomba. And together we help out over six hundred small museums across the state and we actually make ourselves available to all local government areas in Queensland. So as you were saying before, we assist through virtual help, we also visit regularly all of those areas when we can and assist out a whole range of keeping places, museums, galleries, local government authorities, and basically anyone that needs help with their cultural collections.
LC: And drilling down into helping the cultural collections. What are some of the topics that you can help on?
EM: Thanks Laura. Yes, we help museums, galleries, local councils, keeping places and any volunteer groups to have a cultural collection right across Queensland. We work across all local government areas in Queensland. So therefore, as you mentioned, from Torres Strait to the Northern Territory border and down into that busy south east Queensland corner. So one of our offices in the south east Queensland corner will be helping out the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast our officer who is based up in Cairns could be helping out Torres Strait or crossing Burketown in the Gulf. Myself in Townsville or an officer in Mackay, we help right through western Queensland as well. So I guess it depends on those small keeping places, museums, galleries, what sort of collections they have, what sort of skills those volunteers have who actually work in those communities, and then what sort of assistance we can actually give to them. So it might be collection management skills, it might be new displays and exhibitions. It might be conservation of objects. So we do a whole range of things, including assistance after natural disasters, as well. We’ve helped out after fires and floods, cyclones. So it’s all about applying best practise of museum skills into those small communities.
LC: It’s a big job to do with a team of five people. How do you pull it off?
EM: Well, luckily, we have a great team to start with and that team has a whole range of skills that we combine together. We get on very well and we actually communicate and help each other out whenever we can. When we go out west, we usually send two of us together, not only for sort of safety, but also to try and brainstorm and help out. So we get to spend a lot of time on the road together, but we also rely a lot on the communities we work with. Those communities are really special. They’re really passionate about what they do and things. So without their passion and their enthusiasm, we couldn’t do what we do.
LC: Why is this work so vital?
EM: The work’s vital Laura because Queensland Museum is a State museum and it has a S Collection. But outside of that state collection, you have those community collections. So in six hundred small museums across Queensland, they all have different objects and artefacts and stories and photographs and documents that tell their own story that aren’t in Queensland Museum. So for those small communities to be able to actually preserve, tell their story and start collecting into the future that allows people who are visiting those regions as tourists, whether it’s domestic or international, local or even people who live in those communities, that ability to actually tell their story and have it preserved for future generations.
LC: What you mentioned before, I mean, you guys are kind of like the first responders of the museum world. How does your team mobilise to provide assistance after natural disasters or events like fire?
EM: Yeah, again, we like to be asked to come in. We certainly don’t rush into any of those sort of post disaster areas, so, for example, after cyclones, talk to that community and ask about what their needs are. So we might go in 10 days after an event or so, we make sure that it’s safe to go in. We correspond with police and emergency services and things as well to make sure we’re welcome there and not putting any sort of undue pressure on services within those small towns. And then we assess the damage and then we basically work in that sort of triage area. One of us acts as a coordinator that sort of documents everything and tries to figure out what’s needed that could be tried to save objects. It could be trying to actually look at future collecting after we’ve saved the objects. So there’s a really big, long process that happens as well. It’s not once you go in there and try and take all the objects out of a burnt building or a cyclone place, you find a safe place to put them to work on that in a clean environment. We do a lot of talking with community as well. It’s a very emotional time for them. So while we’re working on objects, we try and upskill them to actually allow them to take over part of that role, once we leave as well. And then when we’re doing that training, we also talk to them personally and things as well and really try and gauge how the community is going. Past event, post event, sorry, they all differ, so a cyclone differs to a fire and a fire differs to a flood and things as well. So you work within those sort of elements as well. A flood, everything’s covered in mud, a fire, I would think obviously, everything’s burnt. And the cyclone, everything is sort of dispersed around town. And then it takes probably two or three years later then you finally go back and you start collecting again. You work through exhibitions, you help with the grants to rebuild buildings and things as well. So that’s a long term project, but one that’s very valuable.
LC: Absolutely. Can I ask what was the most recent natural disaster event you responded to?
EM: On a smaller scale. It would have been Townsville floods in 2019. Again, the MDO’s arrived and basically collected objects from places that were flooded. And we used MTQ here as a base, while in Townsville, it’s good having Queensland Museum campus in North Queensland where we are able to access freezers and things as well to actually store those objects. It’s basically buying time for those communities as well. So if we can take the objects away from them wrapped in plastic, put them in the freezer, if it’s flood damaged work we’re doing, it then allows them four or five months or a year to actually respond to that in a way. But prior to that, Laura, we dealt with cyclones over the years, Cyclone Larry, Cyclone Yasi, the fire at Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, as mentioned before as well, and also floods in Gayndah and Bundaberg.
LC: Ewen, I’d imagine that the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns were quite challenging for the team. How did you navigate lockdown when your work so often requires travel?
EM: That work didn’t actually stop during COVID, for us, it kept going right through that year. We went to places like Croydon in north west Queensland, where we assisted in getting their visitor information centre and historic buildings up and running for the tourist season that would recommence. And it’s now shown that later in that year there was a huge surge in domestic tourism right through Queensland. Places like Karumba had its busiest ever. And to get to Karumba, you drive through places like Croydon. So we were able to actually work in those communities as long as we followed those safe working procedures as well. But there were also many people who didn’t want us to come along. So we didn’t work in Torres Strait. It wasn’t suitable for us to do any work there. We didn’t work with any Indigenous communities in person as well, because it’s that sort of vulnerability is much higher in those communities and access to health care. So we are very conscious and very measured in our approach. And so in those cases, we offered assistance, as we always do, through email and phone. And also we spent a lot of time talking through with people on how to use teams and zoom and all of those virtual assistance programs. So that was a lot of fun as well in terms of getting strange and weird angles from people who haven’t used those programs before.
LC: It was a learning experience for a lot of people, I think. Contemporary collecting is important to document contemporary life for future generations. How do you encourage communities to do this
EM: We did a survey probably about ten years ago, Laura, where we surveyed every single keeping place museum gallery throughout Queensland. And what we found was that lots of small places aren’t really collecting anything, post 1960. Most of these places are all collecting from an era where the volunteers weren’t born or lived because they didn’t think it was important. So when you have a community who is working in these places who are older, they have lived their lives through 1960, right through the current time. So they don’t really collect. So we found there was a massive, massive collecting gap. There’s nothing from Croydon from 1974 or nothing from Charters Towers from 1986 or nothing from Biloela from 2012. So we really try and encourage communities to actually look beyond just collecting old things, but to actually collect things of importance to the community. We went through a whole program with them about what to collect and how to run a collection policy and to not collect seven Singer sewing machines, but to just collect one sewing machine that was important to that community or collect something that happened like a flood event or fire event that happened in 2019, for example. So if you don’t collect all the time that you miss big chunks of history and stories to tell for the future. So we really try and run that through. And to do that, we run workshops. We have examples, and it’s all underscored by best museum practise.
LC: What is the most intriguing object you’ve come across in your years as an MDO?
EM: Oh, great question. I think it’s pretty hard to actually mention one object. I think what really interests me is the there’s so many objects out there to do with health. So when you go to all of those western Queensland towns and things, they always have hospital collections where there used to be a hospital in town, but now it’s closed. And so when the hospital closed, basically a small museum got all of the health things. And those health items generally tend to be quite robust and strong. So that might be stainless steel and they’re medical grade and things. So they’ve actually preserved quite well in those environments. So you can track the influence and I guess the technology of health across western Queensland through looking at dentist chairs or various other scary medical implements. So when you can look at the region, I think it’s really interesting. And so if you have a comparative collection in, say, Townsville, which is a health hub, and then you can see that the once the health items, there were finished being used in Townsville, they were sent to Charters Towers went from Charters Towers, they were sent onto Julia Creek or Hughenden and then eventually ended up at the end of the rail line. So you can see that transformation as well. So you might get a 1970s really funky Japanese dentist chair sitting in a shipping container in western Queensland ready to be interpreted. Or you might get some really crude early pedal powered dental chairs sitting in there as well.
LC: Ewen we’re going to wrap up now with our rapid fire round called museum in a minute. Are you ready? What did you want to be when you grew up?
EM: Island Hermit.
LC: Favourite museum memory?
EM: I guess, visiting museums as a child and seeing dioramas.
LC: Which is more iconic. Muttaburrasaurus or Mephisto?
LC: Favourite thing about your career?
EM: I think it is the freedom of visiting remote places and being inspired by them.
LC: Would you prefer to work in the field or in the office?
EM: In the field. One hundred percent.
LC: Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park.
EM: Indiana Jones.
LC: If you could do another job in a museum for a day, what would it be?
LC: What do people think you do at work.
EM: I think that they think I drive around western Queensland and all over the states helping out small museums so they don’t really know about that, are really intrigued and interested by that.
LC: Fantastic. Thanks Ewen, that was really nice. If you’d like to learn more about the incredible work, our MDO’s do, you can view their blog, the link is in our show notes. And if you’re interested in contemporary collecting, go back to season one and listen to Episode 12. Our Social History curator Judith Hickson talks about contemporary collecting, focussing on the year we all remember so fondly, 2020. Interested in uncovering more stories? Click the follow button to be notified of the latest podcast episodes. You can follow Queensland Museum on social media at @qldmuseum or head to our website at qm.qld.gov.au and while you’re there, sign up to our e-news list to be the first to know what’s on at our museums. Until next time. Stay curious.