Liz Gillroy – regional museums curator

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The national trust heritage festival will be held from April 2 to 17. Liz Gillroy, regional museums curator, shares the highlights of the festival.

What is your official job title?

I am the Regional Museums Curator for Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.

How long have you been in this position – and what led you to taking it on?

I have been employed by Council in this role for 8 years. I have lived in Port Macquarie for a little over 21 years, moving here with my husband and a 4-month-old baby. Interestingly, I have moved up the north coast following the trail of the convicts of 200 years ago – from Sydney to Newcastle and then to Port Macquarie!

I gained my professional qualifications in Bachelor of Arts (Archaeology) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Museums Studies from Sydney University many years ago. I was then lucky enough to get a job as Assistant Curator Social History at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. This was prior to planning for the Bicentennial celebrations of 1988, so funding was healthy for the museum sector.

It was a ground-breaking time, for the first time, everyday life in Australia was being explored in state museums. This social history has always had a place in regional museums, but the research and context to the collections is now their priority.

I researched and developed a number of exhibitions for the redevelopment of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, now known as the Powerhouse Museum. We worked in teams, with my responsibility being the research, both object and storylines and alongside an exhibition designer, an education officer and a publications expert.

This time at the Museum was really busy and has been really useful; in my later career, I still have great networks across the industry, right across the country. One of the exhibitions I worked on way back then has only just been taken out – The Kings Cinema, a re-creation of a 1930s Art Deco theatre and the associated display showing the impact of Americanisation of the entertainment industry on Australian life.

My husband’s job then took us to Newcastle, where I was successful in gaining the inaugural Regional Museum Curator job at the new Newcastle Regional Museum. Opened by the Queen in 1988, I worked on the research and development of the opening exhibitions on the local coal industry, Newcastle’s convict history and more. I worked there until work opportunities for my husband brought us to Port Macquarie.

I had two more children while my husband established a business in Port, and 8 years ago the job with Council came up. I had to be patient, but at last funding for a regional museum curator caught up with me here in Port.

What duties are involved with your role?

My role has always been about working with the local volunteer run museums and heritage societies. In our local government area, we have 10 community managed organisations that care for and collect the Hastings local history – this is very unusual. During Council’s stint as 4th City of the Arts in 2001-2003, funding was used to employ a Museums Advisor, who identified this uniqueness and the need for Council to work with these groups towards a strategic future.

My job was born from this. Representatives from each of the local heritage organisations meet bi-monthly to share information and plan a strategic future together. This committee is known as the Hastings Heritage Group. Council and this Heritage Group also undertake projects together – one of which is the annual National Trust Heritage Festival.

My role has changed over the past 2 years, as I am now based at the Glasshouse and have care of the on-site archaeological remains and the heritage interpretation within the building. I also work closely with other Glasshouse staff to develop an integrated program: across heritage, gallery and theatre sectors. The inclusion of more exhibitions with an historical focus, like The Governor: Lachlan Macquarie 1810-1821 display is also an aim.

The exhibitions already programmed for the Glasshouse present an opportunity to showcase the local collections within a wider context. The Glasshouse will act as a signpost to the area’s historic sites and local collections, encouraging audiences to visit these places.

The quality and size of the Glasshouse gallery space will allow us, for the first time, to be able to host travelling exhibitions from major museums. I look forward to working with the state & national institutions to create exhibitions that are relevant to our local history.

Describe a typical day (if you have any such thing!) in carrying out your work …

A typical day might start with a meeting with my colleagues at the Glasshouse to discuss any issues and upcoming events, program planning across the venue and management feedback.

Back to my desk, to read up and develop additions to the heritage interpretation at the Glasshouse. I am working on an iPhone application for walks around Port’s CBD, beginning at the Glasshouse and a series of posters for heritage based drives around the region. Having the Visitor Information Centre located within the Glasshouse has assisted in increasing awareness of the tourism potential of heritage.

I am also developing a brief for a professional historian to work on the upcoming Migration Heritage project. This is a partnership with the Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum and will be producing a scholarly history of migration to the Hastings, Macleay and Manning River valleys by the end of 2011.

An associated study of the impact of this migration on the local Aboriginal populations is also being undertaken as part of the project, so I will also be developing a brief for this work to commence.

As we presently have the Macquarie exhibition at the Glasshouse, I am taking free guided tours as part of a Seniors Week activity and assisting with the Education programme around the display.

I am also answering phone calls and emails from other Council staff and members of the public with general inquiries. Every day is different which I love about the job.

What is the most rewarding thing for you personally about your job?

I love my job, and I have to say the best thing about it is the fact that I learn something new every day. There is a large amount of reading required, to gain information on forthcoming exhibitions, reviewing local histories and developing projects. All of this I really enjoy.

I find the thematic study projects I lead with the historical groups really rewarding too. We have completed Timber Stories and the Her Story projects and are about to commence one on Migration Heritage.

These are funded by Council and Arts NSW and aim to research a theme of history whilst assessing and documenting the local museum collections. The local historical collections have been cared for by volunteers for up to 50 years, and now our focus is on doing research and gathering the stories associated with these objects, to give them context and establish their significance.

Catalogue publications are an outcome of these projects which document the research completed, and the sales also assist the museums with some much needed funding. The work we have done here in the Hastings is highly regarded across the sector and highlights the regional collections on a national stage.

What exactly is the National Trust Heritage Festival? Please give us a brief history behind the event being held in Port Macquarie …

The 2011 National Trust Heritage Festival is in its 31st year, and this is the 6th year Council has been involved. It’s being held from Saturday 2 to Sunday 17 April at a wide range of venues in our Local Government Area.

Many heritage groups will be working together to promote and carry out events which support this year’s theme ‘Amazing Stories – every moment has an amazing story …’

The opening event this year is being held at St Thomas’ Church on 2 April, followed by a Fair in the grounds of the church.

Our historic places, landmarks and collections mark tangible connections to our history. Without them, the stories of our past would be lost.

What’s the aim of the festival?

I think the aim of the festival is to place heritage in the spotlight for these 2 weeks. In our case, throughout the Hastings, we hold a really significant place in Australia’s story. We are the third oldest white settlement on the mainland, older than both Brisbane and Melbourne.

Locally, there are stories that connect the present to the past, that bring us insight and enjoyment and help us share experiences – these are amazing, powerful stories!

It is a great time to get out and see some of the local sites and visit the wonderful museums that are home to our historic collections.

What are some of the special events / exhibitions that have been organised as part of the festival?

On Tuesday 6 April, you can book for a tour of the Lake Innes ruins and learn more about Port’s early entrepreneur, Archibald Clunes Innes. Or, you can visit the Port Macquarie Museum for free and hear some of the great local stories from our past on 13 April.

Visit the Glasshouse in April for a heritage-focussed Kids Spot; kids can find a fossil or become an archaeologist for the day. Enjoy the Tall Tales event at Kendall and hear stories by Bill Boyd and Ray O’Neill on Sunday 17 April over lunch.

The recently repainted Maritime Museum in William St is the perfect venue for tea and scones while listening to amazing stories of past sailors and shipwrecks on Sunday 10 April.

You can also visit the wonderful Douglas Vale Homestead and Historic Vineyard on the Oxley Highway at their Open Day on Saturday 16 April. Taste the wine made from the grapes grown on site. Or, pop in to see an exhibition at the Wauchope District Historical Society throughout the whole of the Festival.

Events programs are available from all historical societies and the Visitor Information Centre at the Glassshouse, or online at http://hastingsheritagefestival.wordpress.com/events/

Tell us something about the wider museum community.

The museum sector is very diverse, inclusive of the large state collecting institutions based in Sydney to Regional Museums like Wagga Wagga and Tweed Heads, to the many community-run museums and historical societies throughout New South Wales.

The museum and gallery sector in NSW and ACT comprises over 650 organisations and approximately 5,000 paid and volunteer workers. These galleries and museums also provide a major contribution to their local communities, economies and cultural life, as well as playing an important role in tourism.

As close to 80% of the country’s heritage collections are held in regional Australia, it is important to ensure that museums in regional areas are represented in all levels of government planning. In recent years, due to decreased funding, local government has needed to become more involved in the funding and planning of museums.

Museums & Galleries NSW are the state body for museum advocacy, and I sit on their Museums Reference Committee. This is useful for me and the job to be up to date with the current position of all things museums and also is beneficial as a showcase for the Mid North Coast museums.

I am also the chapter representative for the Mid North Coast Chapter of Museums Australia, which is our professional organisation that advocates for the museum sector at a national level.

The chapter reaches from Coffs Harbour in the north to Taree and Wingham in the south and meets twice a year for training and communication opportunities.

This is a great forum for the many similar organisations to share knowledge and challenges and for planning towards the sustainability of regional collections.

For those particularly interested in the history of our local area, what do you believe the best way is to source information – or are there any particular historical sites and/or exhibitions you feel would be useful?

Local historical societies hold lots of reference material about the local area and are a great place to start your research. Many of these societies have been carrying out research and producing papers on topics of local interest for decades. The library also holds a fine collection of reference material in its Local Studies Room.

The Port Macquarie & Districts Family History Society, who is based in the Port Macquarie library, have a sizeable collection of reference documents and records available for their members. Family history is really popular across the community and is a great way to ignite an interest in more general history.

Last year Council produced a joint marketing brochure for all the heritage organisations in our local government area, introducing their collections, giving opening times and a map to locate them. These are a handy planner and are available free on most brochure racks throughout town.

These days, the internet is an amazing research tool, with more and more becoming available online. State and national libraries and museums all have directed a lot of time and money to provide accessibility to their collections. People should have a look at the National Library’s Trove website (www.trove.nla.gov.au), where they can search diaries, journals, maps, photos and digitised newspapers, all from the comfort of their home here in Port.

Thank you Liz.

Interview by Jo Atkins.


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