Curator Michael Gregg, of the Maritime History department of the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle, recently visited the Scienceworks collection store to take highly specialised photographs of a model ship in our Transport Collection.
Michael Gregg with the model of pearling lugger Mary.
Source: Museum Victoria
The model is an exact replica of the pearling lugger Mary that operated out of Broome and Darwin in the 1920s and 30s. It was commissioned and partly constructed by Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Ingleton RAN in the 1930s to document a uniquely Australian type of vessel that was rapidly disappearing.
In 1913, the pearling industry was worth a fortune to Western Australia in exports. As Michael puts it, "Australia didn't ride on sheep's back, it was on the pearl oyster's back." In one year alone, 300 new luggers were registered. "At one stage, the guy who built this boat was turning out a new lugger every 14 days."
Michael is interested in the model because it captures details of design and construction that have been lost with the demise of the pearling lugger. "There are no Fremantle-built pearling luggers still in existence in their original form," explains Michael. This is in part due to mechanisation; the original Mary was herself fitted with an engine by the 1930s. But more significant was the illegal rebuilding of luggers and recycling of registration numbers by unscrupulous operators. World War II took a toll on the lugger fleet also, as boats were requisitioned by the Navy or destroyed ahead of a feared Japanese invasion..
"There were all sorts of shenanigans that went on with the pearling industry," Michael says. "The best way to run the industry economically was to import Malay and Japanese labour. Come the early 1900s, the White Australia Policy meant you could bring in indentured seamen to work on ships for up to two years but they were only allowed to work as crew, not boatbuilders." Pearling masters got around this technicality by signing up imported labour as crew, but quietly issuing them boatbuilding tasks as 'maintenance'.
There were three distinct types of pearling lugger built to cope with the different conditions in Broome, the Torres Strait and Shark Bay. The nature of these vessels – rapidly built to a standard pattern and considered reasonably expendable – means they were rarely preserved in model form. It was only Ingleton's interest in recording history that inspired the construction of this model, and it's being used now exactly as Ingleton intended.
Detail of the Mary model showing its beautifully detailed rigging and fittings.
Source: Museum Victoria
"We were just gobsmacked when we discovered this model because we thought we knew of all the significant lugger material in Australia," says Michael. "We regularly trawl the net looking for references to pearling luggers. Because there was sufficient information in your Collections Online and it's searchable, it popped up in Google." One of the most exciting prospects for the model, and the reason for Michael's visit, is that he's using it to help develop photogrammetric software and techniques that will conserve Australia's maritime technology.
Michael Gregg at work taking photos of the pearling lugger model in the Scienceworks collection store, experimenting with a 3D camera.
Source: Museum Victoria
Photogrammetry uses a series of photos analysed by a computer to build a 3D virtual model of an object. According to Michael, it's commonly used by police to help reconstruct road crashes. "It's great for working out the distance between two points in space, but we're really pushing the boundaries of what it can do." While the process will be most useful in recording full-sized ships, the Mary model invites some experimentation; he was using a 3D camera see if it would help simplify the laborious process of matching target points between different photographs. "It's much easier to work on a full-sized boat because you can stick targets all over it and nobody minds. With a museum-quality model, we can't do that. This is the first time I've recorded rigging simultaneously, too."
Michael sees photogrammetry as an incredibly useful tool for museums and more. Ultimately he hopes the software and techniques he and his colleagues are developing can do something absolutely extraordinary: use historical photographs to create something you can hold in your hand. The craze for stereoscopic photographs around the turn of the century produced countless images of one view from two slightly different angles, and these might one day allow 3D recreations of long-gone ships, buildings, artefacts and more. "It's very, very exciting."
Western Australian Museum - Maritime
Pearl lugger Mary on Collections Online