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Monday, 13 June 2011

Yep, that's me in the reflection of this embroidered depiction of a paddle steamer named 'City of Grafton', an artefact the lady at the front door of the museum told me cost $3000 to repair before it was displayed - along with thousands of other objects of historical significance - to the eager public. You can tell that it's me because I need a haircut, and I'll get one as soon as I get back home from this research trip into rural NSW.

I visited the Grafton museum on a day off. It was raining, as it is today, but not heavily. I parked my car in the centre of historical Grafton, down by the Clarence River (that unruly, swashbuckling serpent with its roots south west of Brisbane in what Queenslanders call the 'Granite Belt') outside the post office, and wandered back toward the cathedral of brick where a chorus of some sort was making itself heard. The water sloshed through the gutters and ran off the sodden nature strips into the grey road. A man told me that church is not free after asking me how much the entrance fee was, because you have to "give your life to it". He was a short and slightly grizzled gentleman of the sort you can find anywhere, not as florid as the petrol station attendant in Inverell whose red face spoke of innumerable cold nights.

When I wandered down to the river's edge I could hear the cattle bellowing across the strait. I stood in the drenched green grass listening to the kine low and scream. The grey distance made itself felt. I couldn't see the Grafton Bridge, or hear it. The only sound was the incessant rain and the voices of the cows across the water.  I took some more pictures and then asked a pair of elderly ladies how to find the museum. They told me it was in Fitzroy Street and off I trudged.

There are probably hundreds of such museums scattered across Australia. They have been established by citizens concerned with a disappearing inheritance. There is one in Gympie not far from where I live. Like the one in Gympie, this one contains thousands of items packed together in rough order. So, items that would have been found in a living room are all arrayed in a recreated living room. Items that would have been found in a bedroom are all arrayed in a recreated bedroom. There are tags describing in miniature print the identity of the item and who donated it. It's all very curious.

But not informative. You could easily remove 75 percent of the items from the museum without losing anything in terms of relevance. What is needed more than anything is some sort of curation. You need well-written signs pasted alongside the items you decide to keep. These signs should tell a story. The way things are inside these cabinets of curiosities you must stagger from one room to the next ghasping for breath, overwhelmed by the plethora of material and the paucity of consideration on the part of the designers.

In fact there is no design. Proof, if any were needed, is in the book cabinet off the living room. There, hundreds of old books sit on exposed shelves waiting for a learned nimble-finger to spirit away the choice volumes. Glass facings for the shelves must be given consideration if the running committee is not to end up losing valuable pieces from the city's past.

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