April 2, 2019
Arts & Culture

Curious and curiouser

It takes immense passion, a thirst for knowledge and sometimes a quirky personality to be a curator of the various forms of SA’s history. We speak to five South Australians who've taken on the task.

Cath Kemper with bones gathered from SA land and water mammals.

It comes naturally

Conducting post-mortems, delving into freezers and writing scientific papers is all in a day’s work for Cath Kemper.

As curator and senior researcher of mammals at the South Australian Museum, Cath’s role has evolved over 35 years and her passion for conservation is clear.

Cath oversees about 28,000 mammal specimens that have been collected at the museum since the late 1800s, ranging from full skeletons to a single tooth, and even stomach contents. With 92 per cent South Australian specimens, the collection provides a significant historical record of threatened and extinct species, including a thylacine from Adelaide Zoo. Out of the thousands of specimens, her favourite is a preserved pygmy whale foetus collected from Port Victoria.

Cath has specialised in marine mammals for the past 25 years and the collection has become Australia’s largest and most comprehensive. “The purpose of the work is to find out as much as we can about the animals,” says Cath. “But my aim isn’t just for science’s sake, it’s to help conserve them.”

Based in the museum’s Science Centre, Cath is part of a team of researchers who are the science behind the museum’s collections. She curated the whale and dolphin display in the front foyer and contributes to other natural history exhibitions, but much of Cath’s work isn’t on show.

Research trips take her through remote areas of the outback and her team are the first called upon for any marine mammals stranded along the coast. It’s a constant process of keeping up with the most recent research, which is not only shared with the public through exhibitions and talks, but informs state and federal governments and is shared internationally.

When Cath hits the road, she ensures the rural communities get direct exposure. For example, when called to the site of a deceased whale in the state’s far west, the whole skeleton was trucked back to Adelaide and visited schools along the way. “We stopped in town with this truck full of rotting bones and flesh and the kids thought it was wonderful! They’ll remember that forever,” says Cath.

When stranded whales and dolphins can’t be saved, the team ensures everything can have a research purpose. Tissue is collected for toxicology and a sample is kept for genetic record — another significant collection at the museum in frozen archives. The bones (once macerated), organs and any other usable items are studied for data, where Cath can see patterns of growth and maturation to understand the whole picture.

“If something is affecting the animal, what consequences does it have for humans?” she says.

The work takes Cath to conduct public lectures around the city, interstate and internationally, which she finds a fundamental aspect of the role. “Anything we do publicly is so important for the next generation and for our research — and so the world knows the important things we’re doing here,” she says.

Not all dusty shelves

Denise Chapman didn’t have a library growing up in Marree, but she now finds herself as caretaker of some 68,000 books, 900 toys and more than 800 games. As curator of the children’s literature research collection at the State Library of South Australia, Denise has come to intimately know the state’s play culture and pastimes.

After a career change from commerce, Denise found herself in the niche curatorial role after seeing a box of toys being moved in the library’s depths. The collection is wide-ranging and scattered in storage and as well as books and toys, it encompasses ephemera such as calendars, greeting cards, comics and board games.

“It’s a really important collection for the South Australian community because they’re the ones who have contributed,” says Denise. “These are the play interests of our past.”

Denise says a curator can never know every item, but thrives on piecing together the sociological puzzle behind them. A favourite toy in the collection is a Barney E-1 model army tank, built in England as a replica of those used in World War I. These toys were made by wounded soldiers during and after the war as a mode of therapy and employment, where factories were occupied making armaments. “Before the war, children were playing with hoops and teddy bears,” she says.

Denise is constantly surprised by the weird and wonderful pieces, which also includes a doll with the human hair of her owner cut as an act of independence in 1904. “I’m terrified of dolls! They are neatly coffined in the basement, but they do come with their own interesting stories,” she says.

Most of the collection has been donated by local families and individuals, handed over with a pang of childhood sentimentality. Denise records their story for context before items are cleaned and housed by the preservation team, photographed, described and digitised while the item is safely stored, enabling people around the globe access via the library’s website.

From the days of early settlement to the present, each item speaks volumes of its time, from colonialist board games and Meccano sets to Ginger Meggs dolls and Penny Dreadfuls.

Denise describes exhibitions as the “shiny things aspect”, where beguiling and interesting pieces are displayed in inventive ways to showcase the research.

“The thing I love most is seeing people’s reactions to displays,” says Denise. “You see many people walk past the toys staring with mouths and eyes wide open. You can see them go somewhere in their mind.”

Blooming heritage

Tucked away at the back of the Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens a small team is doing exciting things in a suite
of glasshouses.

As horticultural curator of plant propagation at the Mount Lofty nursery, Matt Coulter grows all of the local and international flora in the city’s three botanical gardens, as well as other research projects.

The day at the Mount Lofty nursery begins with a tour of the glass and shade houses to check irrigation and climate control are on track to mimic the plants’ natural environments. A schedule of jobs includes working with other curators to decipher plants that need to be propagated, fertilised, watered, or planted out.

“It’s really special to see a plant that may be close to extinction grow and thrive here successfully from seed,” says Matt.

Matt’s favourite plant is also the most pungent. A project of the past 10 years has been developing one of the world’s biggest collections of Amorphophallus titanum, or the infamous corpse flower. When he began at the nursery 10 years ago, the corpse flower project had just begun with three seeds and a lot of hope, as the Indonesian plant was threatened and had seen few flowerings in the wild.

At present, 150 flowers in varying stages of growth are housed in their own tropical glasshouse and carefully attended to before the one day a year where they show their true colours. With almost 40 years’ experience and a multitude of propagation methods under his belt, Matt’s green thumb means the plants have the best chance of thriving. Now, the prolific work has earned the nursery international praise and Matt is certain they will set the record for the biggest flower in the world in years to come.

“It has so many stories to tell,” he says. Famed for flowering once a year for only 24 hours, Matt’s fascination has elevated the corpse flower to a celebrity status here and overseas, as the bloom is broadcast online as crowds gather to experience the event.

While the biggest challenge is nurturing so many different plants and climates in one area, Matt relishes his role in being exposed to countless rare and endangered plants from across the world to unlock their propagation secrets.

Each planting season from May to October, Matt and his team will plant more than 5000 plants in the three gardens, each tailored to their own theme and climate. The team also works with the Seed Conservation Centre to germinate rare flora, collaborate with departments to propagate endangered plants to be reintroduced to the wild, as well as teaching TAFE courses and public masterclasses. The botanical world works on an international scale, as the curators share knowledge and research on their specialised subjects, and freeze-dried seeds are often sent between nations to test in different environments.

“What I love most is that you never stop learning. We deal with a lot of plants others don’t get to see,” says Matt. Even while on holiday, Matt always finds himself at botanical gardens and spends time nurturing his flourishing vegie garden at home.

“After all these years, it’s still exciting to see seeds germinate or cuttings develop a root system,” he says.

Work of art

“It’s such a luxury to present things that you love to people who enjoy them,” says Russell Kelty, associate curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Once having no interest at all in art, Russell was inspired to become a curator after seeing a Chinese ink brush painting while at university in his home state of Colorado. When working overseas and meeting his wife in Japan, the pair next moved to Adelaide. “My wife had studied on exchange to Whyalla from Japan, and she wanted to go back,” he says. “When she mentioned Adelaide, I said ‘great! Where is that?’”

The Asian art collection at the Art Gallery encompasses 3500 works spanning thousands of years from the geographically and culturally diverse region. Almost all of the pieces have been donated or funded by the South Australian public with an immense passion for the genre that came as a surprise to Russell.

“There are endless stories, histories and complexities in the art of Asia,” he says. “Everything has such a depth of meaning in the subject or its cultivation; it was seen as important to become a fuller person.”

With only three per cent of the gallery’s collection on display, Russell thrives on evolving displays and creating fresh exhibitions that stem from a current world topic or a single dynamic art piece.

Russell spends any spare time reading about the art, with every day offering different challenges. “There are meetings, writing, looking at and for works of art, meeting donors — it’s a non-stop rollercoaster of unexpected things.”

The role of curator is more than dusting the artworks, says Russell. It’s a conduit of the creator, who in many cases may no longer be living. “The job is to rebuild the context which is so important. We’re evoking a context different to ours today. Being able to understand another place and another time gives us an essential sensitivity to things.”

The collection is representative of every aspect of Asia, with works in countless mediums of ceramics, calligraphy, vases, robes, wall hangings, paintings and sculptures.

“One thing that I love about Adelaide is that while it’s a small city population, every year there’s still something new that comes out of the community that blows your mind,” he says, and it’s the kind of support that keeps him inspired. “When you have a room full of people who are interested in a 19th century robe it’s really great — I thought I was the only one!”

In the many galleries, a Chinese Baluster vase stands as one of Russell’s most loved items. A gift from the great-granddaughter of a tea merchant, the ornate porcelain vase was collected in Shanghai in about 1850, before it travelled to the United Kingdom and Adelaide via Perth. Repairs along the journey indicate it was greatly valued by the original owner.

However, each piece has its own cultural value and place for Russell. “They’re kind of like your children,” he says. “You can’t have favourites.”

Hot wheels

From Melbourne galleries to Tennant Creek’s town hall, the role of senior curator at the National Motor Museum has taken Mick Bolognese places.

As caretaker of the largest collection of vehicles in Australia, Mick relishes the responsibility of telling the story of motoring’s role in South Australian history. After beginning his working life as an engineer, Mick’s passion for history drew him back to study and work at the British Museum and the London Fire Brigade Museum. He returned to Australia and began working at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood.

The museum welcomed the [Re]assembled exhibition earlier this year to commemorate the Holden factory closure, though Mick sees this as a way of preserving the heritage of car manufacturing in SA.

“It’s one of the most important pieces in the collection, the final Holden Commodore off the line, covered with the signatures of the factory workers as a ‘signing off’,” Mick says.

Exhibitions are a highlight of the role and take Mick on the road to set up displays interstate. The team took the award-winning Bush Mechanics exhibition from Adelaide to communities 6000 kilometres around Australia, with the central vehicle strapped on a trailer. Ideas for future exhibitions are always circulating to appeal to a wider audience — not just “petrol heads”.

The role also involves behind-the-scenes research for fresh ways to attract a varied demographic, responding to the public’s car or restoration queries, ensuring the vehicles are maintained, reviewing possible acquisitions, and even cleaning up oil spills when needed.

“On my first day I came to work in a suit, which was my first mistake,” says Mick.

Mick’s knowledge is across generations of social history in a collection of unexpected gems, from motorbikes to a Bugatti Veyron, and steam vehicles to fire engines. The 1909 Merryweather fire engine is one of Mick’s favourites thanks to a childhood watching Fireman Sam.

Among the hundreds of vehicles is the quirky Lightburn Zeta, a 1960s microcar made in Adelaide that ran on the same engine as a washing machine. “Lightburn and Co. used to make cement mixers and washing machines and thought making cars was the next logical step — and they’re terrible,” says Mick, who test drove the ute when it came in.

Mick relishes the opportunity to share the less obvious stories of local automotive history that shaped a proud identity in the everyday car owner. “More often than not, cars that are important to Australian motoring don’t live in an auction house or a fancy salon, they’re going to be in someone’s shed somewhere, where they’ve been loved for 70 years,” he says.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of SALIFE.

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