History & Technology

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History & Technology

Research and collections that document Victoria's history since European settlement, including community and domestic life, cultural diversity, technological change and innovation, and major historical events.

Working at the museum is dead interesting

Author
by Meg
Publish date
21 July 2014
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We just took receipt of a beautiful Crested Pigeon, in excellent physical condition except for the fact that it was dead. But it will make a useful contribution to the museum’s body of research material. With the locality data carefully recorded, said pigeon was duly deposited in its new (temporary) home – our freezer – to await its final afterlife journey to the collection store.

Crested pigeon specimen. Crested pigeon specimen.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer. Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As I closed the freezer door on our latest acquisition, I found myself feeling grateful, as an inhabitant of the twenty-first century, for the electricity we have to power our freezer in which we deposit our dead things, which we collect for exhibition and research purposes. In contemplating this luxury, I was reminded of a fun fact I learned during a meal at an old country pub while on holiday in Tasmania a couple of years ago – in colonial Australia, not only was there no electricity, but there was also no such thing as a town morgue, and so the remains of the recently departed were best stored in the coolest place in town, the local “house of public accommodation” – the pub. Yep, the bodies were in with the beer; the stiffs with the stout; the late with the lager; the passed with the pilsner, if you will. Encouraged by my interest, the enthusiastic new owner led me to the front room of the nineteenth century pub to be shown the very place where the bodies would have been laid out. I asked the new landlady if she was bothered at all by the history of her new business venture – she laughed and replied “not at all.” I asked her what she did before becoming a publican – she answered “I was a funeral director.” True story.  

Meanwhile, over the course of my internet wanderings on the topic of hotels-as-morgues, I came across a great little newspaper article about the dual function of Melbourne pubs, but then found myself back in Tassie when I unexpectedly tripped over this little nugget:

“The morgue motel: Plans to turn a ‘home’ of the dead into accommodation for the living”

Apparently, a local Tasmanian motel owner is currently in the process of converting the mortuary of the decommissioned Willow Court psychiatric hospital in the town of New Norfolk into somewhere for folk to sleep, although, unlike the original occupants, it is hoped that these guests wake up again.

Which brings me back to the Museum Victorian collections, for just yesterday I was photographing some mortician’s tools that were acquired from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum in Victoria. While the outbuildings of early Victorian asylums routinely included a morgue for the storage of the bodies of patients who had died within the asylum walls, it wasn’t until the proclamation of the Lunacy Act 1903 in Victoria that provision was made for the employment of a full-time pathologist to the Lunacy Department. The pathologist was tasked with conducting autopsies and undertaking pathological examinations to attempt to associate post-mortem lesions in the brain with ante-mortem symptoms. The development of this new clinical-pathological approach to psychiatric research was one of the outcomes of the increasing secularisation of medicine (and studies of the natural world more broadly), that emerged following the dissemination of the Darwinian theory of evolution towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum. A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like Willow Court in Tasmania, many of the pathology blocks associated with former Victorian psychiatric hospitals remain, although as yet none of them are offering bed and breakfast. One does, however, offer a fully-funded kinder program. Again, true story.

10 years of World Heritage status

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
1 July 2014
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Many of us have precious heirlooms that escort our families through the decades, cherished by each generation in turn. Perhaps as a child you loved the treasures in the house of your grandparents and now you are the custodian of these objects, charged with keeping them safe for future descendants.

Few of us experience quite the scale of family collections as Will Twycross, who describes his childhood thus: "I grew up in a weatherboard house that contained European paintings, intricately carved ivory chess pieces, brilliantly coloured ceramics, and long Polynesian arrows that we were told were poison tipped and shouldn't be touched…. The paintings with their strange scenes and exotic colours hung on the walls, breathing the soft mists of Europe into the harsh sunlight of the suburbs."

Photograph of a room The drawing room at Emmarine II, the Twycross family home at 23 Seymour Road, Elsternwick, showing various pieces of the John Twycross collection displayed in the home during the mid-20th century.  

chess pieces Ivory puzzle ball chess pieces from a set carved in China in the late Qing Dynasty, circa 1870-1880. Will Twycross played with these as a child.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Will Twycross is the great-grandson of Melbourne merchant and art collector John ‘Top Hat’ Twycross. The wonders of Will’s childhood home were originally bought by John and his wife Charlotte ‘Lizzie’ Twycross at the 1880 and 1888 Melbourne International Exhibitions. There they acquired several hundred paintings, pieces of furniture and decorative items for their grand house in Caulfield. Through the years, the Twycross family cared for the collection until 2009, when they donated over 200 objects to Museum Victoria's Royal Exhibition Building Collection. "We decided to return it to the place it had come from," notes Will. "The decision seemed to have a certain symmetry to it."

People at an exhibition Illustration of the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition bustling with visitors.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Today marks ten years of World Heritage status for our beloved Royal Exhibition Building, and we're celebrating with the release of a book and accompanying website about the extraordinary Twycross Collection. In Visions of Colonial Grandeur, curator Dr Charlotte Smith has researched not just the Twycross legacy and the collection itself, but the impact of two international exhibitions – which were, at the time, the largest events held in Australia.

The Royal Exhibition Building is no longer surrounded by the temporary annexes that housed the grand courts of the Melbourne Exhibition Building, but it remains the only Great Hall of its era to survive in its original setting and the world's oldest continuously-operating exhibition hall. On 1 July 2004, the REB was the first Victorian site and the first Australian building to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It followed the 1980s listings of places of outstanding natural and cultural significance such as Kakadu National Park, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef.

Links:

Visions of Colonial Grandeur website: museumvictoria.com.au/colonial-grandeur

Visions of Colonial Grandeur book

John Twycross Melbourne International Exhibitions Collection on Collections Online

Australian sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List

WWI ambulance arrives

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
25 June 2014
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On Monday evening, perhaps just as you were eating dinner, a crew carefully unloaded an extraordinary object from World War I and placed it in the foyer of Melbourne Museum.

 

This is a British-made Ambulance Wagon MK VI. It dates from 1914-18 and is on loan to us from the Australian War Memorial for our upcoming exhibition World War I: Love & Sorrow

One hundred years ago, these horse-drawn ambulances transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Unarmoured and vulnerable, they often travelled by night to avoid becoming targets. The journey between trench and casualty clearing station could take many days over rough tracks—an agonising journey for men with terrible injuries.

World War I: Love & Sorrow marks the centenary of the start of WWI. It opens at Melbourne Museum on 30 August 2014.

Cork Colosseum x-ray

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
17 April 2014
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An x-ray machine usually employed for mammography examined an unconventional patient earlier this year: a model of the Colosseum made from cork around 1800. Thanks to generous assistance from Lake Imaging in North Melbourne, object conservator Sarah Babister now has a view inside one of our most curious objects.

Four people discuss photograph Conservators Sarah and Dani show radiographers Jeff and Ghazia a photo of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria

cork Colosseum model The facade of the Colosseum model. (HT 24386)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Radiographer Ghazia adjusted the settings of the mammography machine to accomodate this unusual material—cork is much less dense than human tissue—and produced wonderfully clear and informative images of several pieces of the Colosseum.

Woman with x-ray machine Ghazia placing a piece of the Colosseum on the mammography machine.
Source: Museum Victoria

Woman with computer Ghazia adjusting the levels of the x-ray to best show the hidden structure within the cork Colosseum.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We think that our Colosseum was built by English model-maker Richard Du Bourg (or Dubourg), but in the absence of a signature, Sarah is looking for characteristic materials and construction techniques that could confirm its maker. Further research by historian (and the museum’s Head of Humanities) Richard Gillespie and genealogist Neil Gill is fleshing out the intriguing story of Du Bourg and his models; Richard recently visited similar objects in overseas collections for comparison. Sarah and Richard will present a talk about the model and its story next month as a part of the History, Cultures and Collections seminar series.

From 1775 to 1819, Du Bourg’s models of classical ruins were the height of fashion and his a well-known London exhibition. “He’s a fascinating character,” says Sarah. Notoriously, his working model of Vesuvius destroyed an entire exhibition when its eruption set fire to all the other models on display. “He lived until he was in his early 90s and even though he’d been very famous he was living in poverty.”

Sarah explains that cork models “were really popular at a certain time and were kept as tools to teach students. Then they fell out of fashion and a lot of them were disposed of.” This may explain Du Bourg’s impoverished old age, and is the reason why the museum has this model at all – in 1929 it was sent from the Science Museum in London to the Industrial and Technological Museum in Melbourne.

cork Colosseum detail Sarah holding a large piece of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The model is over a metre wide and in poor condition. The base it sits on is cracked and the gesso applied to the perimeter is flaking, and several sections of wall have broken off. These broken sections are a mixed blessing, since without them there could be no x-rays, which reveal the lead pencil marking lines, and pins and nails used to hold the pieces of cork together. This information may help confirm whether Du Bourg made the model, but will also help Sarah reattach the broken pieces.

X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum. The metal pins, and decorative carvings covered in lead paint, appear white.
Image: Lake Imaging
Source: Museum Victoria
 

“Most of the pieces are there so the model would be virtually complete with the exception of a few small columns which might need to be replicated,” she says. “I’d love to put it back together so it can be viewed how it should be viewed because it’s such an amazing object. The level of detail in the carving is wonderful, and cork lends itself so well to representing that ruinous state.”

To learn what the x-rays revealed, come along to Richard and Sarah's free seminar on 14 May, titled For the Nobility, Gentry & Curious in General: Richard Du Bourg’s Classical Exhibition, 1775-1819.

Links:

Cork Colosseum model on Collections Online

From LaserDisc to high-res Hasselblad

Author
by John Broomfield
Publish date
4 April 2014
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John manages the museum's Media Production and Copyright Department.

Recently a group of aero engines, usually stored high in the storage racks at Scienceworks, was lowered to allow visitors a closer look. This allowed me to photograph them for Collections Online and revisit a job I did at the museum some 20 years ago.

aero engine, side view New photograph of an Austro-Daimler Beardmore aero engine, circa 1914. The design was used by combatant nations on opposing sides during the First World War. (ST 17925).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The first time I photographed the aero engines, I was an Image Capture Officer and Museum Victoria was one of the first institutions to link electronic images of collection objects to a database. I say electronic because these images were analogue, not digital. This period represented the transition between traditional silver-based photography and digital photography as we know it today.

Back then, we captured the objects using a video camera (Super VHS), then transferred video stills onto a WORM (Write Once Read Many) drive LaserDisc. These discs were then sent to the USA to be pressed into LaserDiscs that could be played in domestic machines. The players were attached to computers and search results displayed collection images on a separate monitor.

Although this technique was cutting edge at the time, the starting resolution was only 560x480 pixels, or in today’s terms 0.27 megapixel (a new iPhone has an 8 megapixel camera). Analogue signals suffer deterioration or generational loss each time they are migrated to a new format and our involved multiple transfers – from videotape, to WORM drive and then onto LaserDisc. You can see why some of our legacy images are not quite to the standard we expect today.

grainy photo of aero engine Old LaserDisc image of a Benz IVa circa 1918 230 horsepower aero engine. (ST 034859).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fast forward to 2014: digital photography has evolved to the point where, at the high end, the resolution surpasses what was possible with film-based photography. The equipment I used this time was a Hasselblad H5D, capable of 50 megapixel resolution, which is almost 200 times the resolution of the video/laserdisc system employed first time around.

aero engine, side view 2014 photograph of the same Benz 230 horsepower aero engine. (ST 034859).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Detail of an aero engine Zoom in on the Austro-Daimler Beardmore aero engine photograph. The high resolution captures tiny details like individual stamps on the cylinders. (ST 17925).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Photographing the aero engines presented some interesting lighting challenges. There wasn’t a lot of room to place stands for studio lighting or maneuver the heavy engines with a pallet jack. A large skylight overhead meant I would be struggling to control the natural light coming in from above.

inside collection store The photo setup showing the aero engine on a pallet, the skylight, and the foam reflectors.
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The solution was to adopt the skylight as my main light source and use a series of lightweight foam reflectors to bounce the light back onto the engines. I found something appealing in adopting 18th century studio lighting methods in conjunction with modern digital camera equipment. That must be the museum worker in the photographer coming through…

Great Melbourne Telescope volunteers

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
13 March 2014
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Each Wednesday, a dozen or so engineering and astronomy buffs head to a museum workshop to restore one of Marvellous Melbourne's grandest marvels. The Great Melbourne Telescope (GMT), scorched by the Mount Stromlo fires in 2003, is being resurrected thanks to an estimated 10,000 hours of volunteer work (so far). This group recently received a Certificate of Appreciation in the 2013 Arts Portfolio Leadership Awards.

GMT restoration team Mathew Churchward reading out the Arts Portfolio Award commendation to the Wednesday restoration workshop team.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The workdays have "a bit of a men's shed feel about them," says Senior Curator Matthew Churchward. He coordinates the project alongside Curator of Engineering Matilda Vaughan. The combined knowledge in the room – all members of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, many with experience in engineering, electronics, astronomy and optics – means this piece of 19th-century technology is in expert hands.

Three men with computer L-R: Barry Cleland, John Cavedon, new volunteer Norm and Stephen Bentley working on technical drawings of GMT parts.
Source: Museum Victoria

Building telescopes is a common pastime for amateur astronomers; volunteer Barry Adcock has a home-built a 14-inch diameter telescope for his backyard dome observatory, plus another telescope that allows him to view the stars from inside his house. For many, stargazing is a habit they picked up when very young. Scottish-born Jim Pollock recalls a lunar eclipse in 1949 during which the moon was bright blue after forest fires in Canada. "In the atmosphere, tiny particles of pinene, the oil from the pine trees, scattered red light beautifully and just let the blue light through." Another volunteer, Barry Clelland, remembers looking up as a kid from his backyard in the suburbs and thinking, "that's half the universe there. You could see the Milky Way in Heidelberg back then."

On this day, a sub-group is working on the mirror polishing and grinding machine, a beautiful hulking contraption with a cast iron frame and gears and shafts. The GMT's half-ton speculum metal mirrors tarnished over time, so every few years they were removed and reconditioned with this machine. "We're still trying to work out exactly how it was driven," says Matthew. The mirror sits on a rotating table and as it moves, the polishing head also rotates, "so it doesn't get a flat spot in any part of the mirror. It keeps moving as it's rubbing." Or, like "patting your head and rubbing your tummy," jokes volunteer David Linke. The team hopes to have the polishing machine working within the next year as a hint of what's to come with the telescope itself.

David Linke with the mirror polishing machine. David Linke with the mirror polishing machine.
Source: Musuem Victoria
 

In the workshop, parts of GMT are laid out on pallets and benches. With a grin, David says, "it's a big jigsaw puzzle, isn't it?" Above it all, for equal parts reference and reverence, hangs a large-scale historical picture of the GMT in operation.

Museum workshop A view of the workshop with the GMT’s lattice tube in the foreground. On the back wall hangs the large historical photograph of the GMT at the Melbourne Observatory.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Most of the large parts of the GMT were recovered after the 2003 Mt Stromlo fires. "Oh golly, it was a dirty job to get everything out of that cube," recounts David. "The aluminium had melted from the dome and filled up the screw holes so you couldn't see where things were undone." Many months of work saw the GMT dismantled and its surviving parts audited. Fortunately, the GMT had an unofficial champion in Barry Clark, who has been involved with the Melbourne Observatory since 1955. At that time, decommissioned equipment went into storage and was at risk of being lost. Says Matthew, "Barry's been instrumental in recovering bits and pieces that were hidden under the floor. He's discovered some key bits of equipment that went right back to the very earliest observatory at Williamstown."

Detail of the dismantled cube of the GMT. Detail of the dismantled cube of the GMT.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Lengthy reverse-engineering is recreating the missing parts. "We go out there with a ruler and pencil and paper, take measurements and sketch it up roughly," says Campbell Johns. The measurements are made in imperial units to match Irish manufacturer Thomas Grubb's original specifications, before conversion to metric for fabrication. Some of the team with technical drawing expertise convert the workshop sketches into digital CAD files. There's a lot of cross-checking with old photographs, drawings and the extant parts.

"We don't even know if there was ever a full set of working drawings," says Matthew. "It appears they did the basic layout and started building it before they had the detailed design. You can see evidence in the way parts were modified during the construction process, like spots flattened out of a casting to make a seat for another component." A volunteer adds, "Pretty amazing given in those days there were no angle grinders or power drills or oxy welders. It was all done with cold chisels."

Three men with computers L-R: Barry Clark, Barry Adcock and Mal Poulton working on optics design specifications for the GMT.
Source: Museum Victoria

So why are these men devoting their spare time to this project? It's evident from the way they talk about the GMT that they admire its history and innovation. In addition to its astronomical achievements, including the first observations of southern nebulae, the ingenious nature of its design bewitches them. It had two axes and counterweights that allowed just one person to move the beautifully balanced telescope. In its lifetime there were larger scopes, but none so nimble. Matthew's view is that it's an opportunity of a lifetime for amateur enthusiasts to build such a large telescope; few individuals would have the resources to do so alone. Other volunteers nominate restoring an important part of Melbourne's history as their prime incentive – they want to see it back in its old home.

Indeed, the end goal is to return the working telescope to the Melbourne Observatory for public viewings. Its original configuration restored, there may be new electronic additions to allow digital photography or remote operation via the web. As Matthew says "It could be very inspiring for astronomy in Victoria."

Links:

The Great Melbourne Telescope website contains the story of the telescope, and updates about its restoration through the ASV's Phoenix newsletter

Follow the GMT project on twitter: @GMT21stC

Great Melbourne Telescope on Collections Online

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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