At a meeting recently, I was asked to define our museum … I always explain it like this….
McCrossin’s Mill Museum was developed as an adaptive re-use of a heritage building. John McCrossin built the impressive granite and brick three-storey flour mill in 1870. The milling operation ceased in mid 1890s and the building was used for a variety of purposes until it was scheduled for demolition in the 1970s. In 1979 the Uralla Historical Society Inc. was formed for the express purpose of saving McCrossin’s old flour mill. The purchase of the mill was funded by the sale of six hundred $20.00 debentures.
The debentures were repaid through the generosity of Uralla Players Mrs O’Malley’s Magnificent Music Hall.
McCrossin’s Mill Museum was officially opened on 2 May 1982 by Bill McCarthy, MP Member for Northern Tablelands. In the early years the museum employed a curator as part of a joint funding venture by Australian Museum Association and the Armidale and Uralla Councils, however the content and style of the museum was primarily directed by the members of the Society.
The day before we opened the Museum (Saturday, 1 May, 1982) we had a visit from Premier Neville Wran and Dr Lindsay Sharpe, Director of the new Sydney Powerhouse Museum. Lindsay told me, “Your first and enduring exhibition is this superb Mill building itself”
Those of us who’d been involved in the back-breaking work of the two-year restoration knew exactly what he meant. So that is why we’ve always been respectful to maintain the restored structure and in the installation of exhibitions.
We began McCrossin’s Mill Museum with a clean slate. No collection! Nil! Nothing! But we decided we didn’t want to be a ‘Folk Museum’ which were all the rage at the time. Armidale has a fine Folk Museum, as does lnverell and Glen Innes. Mischievously, we called them “Flat Iron Museums”.
Many of our team back then were involved in “Mrs O’Malley’s Magnificent Music Hall” (which donated the funds for the purchase of the Mill, because we had no money either!) so they had a sense of the theatrical.
We were the first museum· to adopt an exhibition policy based on empathy. That is, we wanted our exhibits to elicit an emotive response from our audience. (‘Audience’ is now a term used the world over for ‘museum visitors’.) As kids, we all found school museum excursions ‘boring’, because they were. So we resolved to create some excitement!
Our first ‘show’ at the Mill was “Thunderbolt”, prepared by Michael van Leeuwin, who managed to borrow some artefacts from the Armidale Museum, and scrounge others from here and there.
Because we were given the original table upon which the body of Thunderbolt was laid out in the Uralla Courthouse, Michael ordered a professionally-made mannequin of the body. This proved to be a most · effective, though rather scary feature, certainly more memorable than a photograph!
There followed discoveries of various and wonderful collections which lent themselves to this empathic approach. The Chinese at Rocky River; what a fluke discovering this collection of National Significance. Our ‘spooky’ Joss House really connects, as does the emphasis on the overt racism of those days. The Anaiwan? Thanks to a creative team of locals, and the expertise of Peter Feitz, a dramatic night scene appeared, giving the audience a pause to reflect. The Tin Man; relics of the Great Depression, but not depressing. The Stoker Collection; hidden inside a tin trunk inside another tin trunk in a fireplace! (This is NOT an exhibition about “a soldier” or “WWI” … it is about a family and a mother’s son. The Ned Trickett story came about because his memorial in Uralla Cemetery was vandalised in 1982, and we rescued it!
Sunny Jim Mackay? Only because in 1985, a friend in Armidale told me about a new book which related Mackay’s amazing and tragic story.
“She’ll Be Right, Mate”; a folk museum exhibit, but with a very personal touch in the text panels. “Down In The Shed”; each of the large artefacts is “personified”. “It’s Just Not Cricket”; a blatant provocative dig at strictly traditional museums. “That is the funniest, most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in a museum, anywhere!” (Head Curator, Australia Museum, Sydney c2001).
”The Sandilands Brothers”; unbelievably sad.
Ironically, the only large exhibition that is quite clinical, is Thunderbolt on the top floor of the Mill.
We employed 3-D Projects of Sydney to do this because we knew it would be permanent, and there were so many fanciful stories about “our” bushranger that we wanted to dispel the myths.
So, a museum can educate people, which is what museums are about, in a passionate manner without tarnishing the integrity of artefacts or the truth.
Education can/should be entertaining. The Melbourne Museum has such a· strong empathic flavour that I sent for a copy of its Exhibition Policy. I knew that McCrossin’s Mill was on the right track when I discovered that a most frequently used term in the policy document was “fascinate”!
This attitude was solidly reinforced at the National Conference in Perth. An authority on museums (from the U.K.) said, “Museums used to be storehouses of artefacts. Now they are showcases of emotion.”
At McCrossin’s Mill we had decided that a long time ago!
By Kent Mayo (Hon. Museum Director)
We really do own a real Museum which exhibits genuine artefacts. Not photographs of . . . Not videos of . . . Not holograms of . . . Not website links to . .
No. The real thing. If we wanted to brag, we might well start with the buildings, our first and enduring exhibits. It seems I’m now the only member who was there from day one, October 1979, when the decision was made to save the Mill. And then came the learning of lots about heritage integrity from architect Peter Myers and builders Bob Maze and Kirk Abbott. (Read about it in “McCrossin’s Mill, Many Hands and Me”, ‘borrowable’ from the Museum desk!)
I admire the buildings so intensely because I well know how neglected and despairing they were before we poured all our love into making them feel good again, so ruggedly beautiful.
About ten years later, led by Peter Feitz, we gave the poor old tumble-down Chaff Shed a dose of the same devotion. The word ‘compromise’ was never uttered. It all had to be right, the real thing.
In hindsight, we could have opened the restored buildings to the public as things to look at, as artefacts. But, of course, those buildings became exhibition spaces, but always with the guiding principle that the integrity of the place must not be jeopardised.
Reluctantly, we had to comply with modern regulations . . . fire hose in the Mill, knee braces and steel roof trusses in the Chaff Shed, and “Exit” signs all over the place!
This was a time when Folk Museums were springing up all over the nation, on the premise “the more stuff, the better.” Artefacts were tarted up with high-gloss black (iron ware), and a ‘brighten up’ with red, blue, green, yellow (carts, wagons, farm machinery) . . . all well-intentioned but forever deleterious to the objects and to the audience’s perceptions.
At the Mill, we’ve never been guilty of doing that. Never? Really? Yes, really! For example . . . Our Chinese collection was carefully cleaned, but never ‘restored’. All our Thunderbolt artefacts are ‘as is’ and genuine. Our Foresters Banner was professionally conserved by the mending of some small rents in the fabric. The Tin Man’s toys were lovingly dusted off, that’s all.
When curators from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum spotted our Winnower and Corn Husker(Gostwyck Station was going to “burn them to make more room in the sheds” in 1981), they said, “Astonishing to find such pieces in original condition, especially the original lettering!”. The suggestion that we repaint the Kangaroo and Emu Gates was met with an arched eyebrow and a barely polite, “ not a good idea!”
Our exhibition booklets, just like this Newsletter, are classy publications, as opposed to photocopied A4 efforts you see elsewhere. Our team has never operated on the, “that’ll do – near enough” easy-way-out maxim. Never. Really!
We can afford to raise the standard of museology only because of the support of our Function Centre volunteers, who not only supply substantial funds for the Museum’s development, but who consistently amaze clients with their professionalism and their passion.
Which brings us to the one element which outsiders, and I, believe makes us a real standout.
Really? Yes. It is the genuine passion our people have for the place to fill it with such commitment, creativity, good-humour, optimism and respect.
Kent Mayo (Hon. Museum Director)
Since we opened the Museum on 2 May, 1982, there have been several fortuitous flukes.
No, before that! In 1979, visionary Sydney architect, Peter Myers, visiting Armidale, saw a piece I’d written about Uralla’s neglected built heritage, including the Mill, which the Express had chosen to publish in full on the front page. Shortly thereafter Peter Myers was leading our team. And without his involvement, maybe nothing would ever have happened. Pure fluke!
The Chinese Joss House contents, originally from Rocky River, were discovered in 1981 when a couple of us were in Tingha on a mission searching for something totally unrelated.
The Cecil Stoker collection was uncovered in 1981 in a soot-spattered tin trunk boarded up in a fireplace in Uralla’s oldest surviving building, 1864, when a few of us were “unofficially inspecting” the place to see if it was worth stepping in to stop the proposed demolition.
The Edward Trickett exhibition, of National Significance, only came about because his magnificent marble memorial at the Uralla Cemetery was vandalised in 1981, resulting in its relocation to the Mill with the blessings of the Trickett clan.
A lot of flukes occurred in 1981, and all of us flat out on the Mill restoration work, as well. Passionate, committed people, one and all!
Sunny Jim Mackay? That remarkable story came to light only because I bumped into a teaching colleague (and fellow cricket tragic) at Armidale Airport in 1985. He told me of a book published “last week” that related Mackay’s incredible story. I might otherwise never have known.
I spotted the NEGS Firecart on the back of a dealer’s truck, in Uralla’s main street, bound for the Sydney Antique Market. A personal cheque, on the spot, guaranteed its acquisition for Uralla. Similarly, Mrs White’s Sulky was rescued from the same fate.
The tragic Sandilands Story, exemplified by a collection of walking sticks, was spotted in the storeroom of another museum. After a brief but passionate debate, it was loaded into my car, to go to its proper home, Uralla. Thunderbolt Artefacts. Too long a story to be told in this column, but here are a few tidbits:
In the 1990s, over several months, I travelled extensively from Windsor to Byron Bay, following every lead that came our way after the Singleton Infantry Museum gave us a Thunderbolt Tranter Revolver, a story which appeared in some Sydney newspapers.
So, one thing led to another. I was doggedly persistent. All those artefacts were acquired from owners whose initial response was, “No. It’s mine!”, but who then “saw the light”.
How do all these flukes happen? . . . this ‘serendipity’? I’ve worked it out. All of us at McCrossin’s Mill Museum are positive and passionate with a “WHY NOT?” outlook.
Others warm to people who are fair-dinkum, which is why they give us stuff, and their support. Positivity is infectious, uplifting for everybody.
Positivity is infectious, uplifting for everybody.
Negativity is contagious, too, breeding apathy, or worse, indifference. Therefore, the more optimistic we are, the more good fortune comes our way. ….But, just like a fluke, there’s always some work involved!
By Kent Mayo (Honorary Museum Director UHS)