Heritage Gold Coast, Part 7: Coming to light

Last month this column featured early colonial Gold Coast pioneer, William Duncan. I stated his grave was purportedly lost somewhere in Burleigh. My source was an old newspaper article which referenced an even older newspaper article. After publishing, Duncan’s grandson informed me that this gravesite is actually in Nerang.

This was not the first time I had come across conflicting information when researching local history. Accounts, unfortunately, are never perfect or complete. Even if recorded, it’s rare to find two versions that are the same. Ideally, hard evidence is available to clarify; things like records, artefacts, articles, photographs, etc – ie ‘stuff’.

Our city is fortunate that the Gold Coast Hinterland Heritage Museum (Mudgeeraba) and the Gold Coast Historical Museum (Bundall) hold loads of ‘stuff’. Making sense of all of it, and being able to collate and present it in a way that tells a story, falls to volunteers. Ongoing support and training is provided by the City of Gold Coast and the Queensland Museum. This support has made possible a new exhibition for each museum.

I met with Josh Tarrant of the Queensland Museum (Museum Development Officer for South East Queensland), during installation of Gold Coast Historical Museum’s latest exhibition and raised the question about history being an imperfect science.

“From a museological perspective, the main principles are to document things. There are gaps of knowledge because things aren’t documented or understood. Things sit unknown. There are always blind spots in history for various reasons”, Josh says.

“We don’t know as much as we think we know or might know. It’s not novel in a museum context to say ‘we don’t know’. This is…”

“- coming to light”, Catherine Elek, museum volunteer interjects. Josh agrees and adds, “…more information keeps coming to light.”

We’re all impressed with Catherine’s segue to the exhibition title. ‘Coming to Light’ is a curation of digitised images of early 20th century Gold Coast from glass plate negatives attributed to Guy Hunt (1884-1950). His album was passed down the family line to be part of the Dunn Family Collection and generously made available to the public.

Every image in this collection is historical eye candy. It includes timber getters, Southport Peace Parade in 1919, the Cambus Wallace ship figure head, a wedding cake and a flying fish. They provide an amazing visual record of how the Gold Coast actually was a century ago. There’s no guesswork involved.

Communities should tell their own stories. Museums should be places to explain histories about places they love, ask questions and bring knowledge to the table.

Not everything, however, is as clear as images. In Hunt’s album is an image of sugar mill owner Robert Muir who passed away when Hunt was four years old. Who took the photograph? Josh is of the opinion it might have been taken by Will Stark, another photographer known for the time period in which it was taken. We find other images that show the markings of Robert Le Strange.

Another question arises: how did Stark’s and Le Strange’s work end up in Hunt’s collection?

Photography was an exclusive hobby relying on darkroom chemicals. Pharmacies were meeting places for photographers to process their images. Small groups of enthusiasts would swap and gift photographs. Hunt, being a pharmacist by trade, ran his own lab and darkroom from his home.

Photography, like curating museum exhibitions, is a marriage of science and art. Over time, Hunt’s work has also become of historical importance. His glass plates and the curation process of their display, have helped clarify life from 100 years ago.

While illuminating, it leaves me wondering about what we’ve missed, what lives, what stories have come and gone without such records. I ask, “What stories don’t we tell? How do we look for these gaps?”

Josh says, “Communities should tell their own stories. Museums should be places to explain histories about places they love, ask questions and bring knowledge to the table. The main thing is keeping that in mind and how we work with it when we do find gaps in the knowledge.”

‘Coming to Light’ officially opens 1pm Sunday 7 November. RSVP  histsocbun@bigpond.com

Gold Coast Historical Museum (8 Elliott St, Surfers Paradise) is open 10am-3pm Sundays, 9am-1pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Header image: Unknown subject Southport c1905 (C) Guy Hunt. Supplied by Gold Coast Historical Museum.

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