Posted by: Museum Manager Suzanne Gibson
It is a great job being a museum curator, especially in a small museum like the Cairns Museum.
We live in a really interesting place environmentally, culturally and historically so there is no shortage of interesting people and projects to keep the museum team busy.
It is also the case that as the only paid staff member in a small museum with limited human resources, you can find yourself doing a wide range of tasks in any one day. Fitting them in can be a challenge.
The other day I made an appointment to visit the Iman of the Cairns Mosque, Abdul Aziz Mohammed. Abdul’s father was a pioneering cane grower who came to Cairns from the Punjab in 1900. The family maintained its Muslim faith and Abdul assumed the spiritual leadership of the Cairns Muslim community. After leading Friday prayers in a CWA hall for almost a decade, he opened the city’s first mosque in 1990, in a tiny Queenslander house.
Abdul has donated a musallah or prayer mat to the Cairns Museum. It’s an important object because for most of his life, Abdul had to carry a musallah and pray in public parks around Cairns if he was away from home at prayer time. The musallah also indicates where the Imam sits in the mosque when leading prayers.
This beautiful mat was given to Abdul by a Malaysian friend and Abdul identified it as appropriate for the museum. In fact he gave us the mat, in a pretty relaxed sort of North Queensland manner and in a similarly relaxed manner we took it. No paperwork, no photos. Thus my need to visit Abdul.
Abdul is happy to meet me at the mosque that afternoon, after Friday prayers. “Come between 2 and 2.15 pm” he says and I promise to be there then. He rings me back and tells me that my legs need to be covered. I tell him I will make sure I am dressed appropriately. He says a headscarf would be good but not essential as the mosque will be empty. I make a note to self – get home before 2 pm and change out of skirt and into trousers.
Somehow between meeting with the school trailer team, assessing a proposed donation, discussing a plan for cleaning all collection items for the Museum, reading the edited text for one of the new Cairns Museum galleries, briefing the Project Manager and working through IT problems with the IT guy, somehow it gets to be 1.55pm. I’m still in a skirt and I have about 15 minutes to get to Abdul. I have managed to charge the camera and have the donation form printed out – but the clothing is a problem.
Think. We’re a museum. We have a collection. Boxes and boxes of clothing. Run to clothing store and open the trunk with the uniforms. Delve through the army grey coat, the denim fireman’s jacket, the nurse’s cape and veil – pause slightly – could the nurse’s veil work as a head scarf? Naa – too weird. Past the Ansett cap and the navy kit bag. Then – gold! Railway uniform jacket and trousers. Gabardine, turquoise blue and about 5 sizes too big. This will do. Trousers under skirt, skirt tightened to hold up trousers, cuffs rolled up, bag under arm sprinting out the door.
The other great thing about working in a small museum is that you’re not far from most places. I am just 2 minutes late and Abdul is gracious about my lack of head scarf and bizarre outfit. He did grow up in Cairns, so I am sure there’s little that surprises him when it comes to women’s fashion. He fills out the donation form, spends time helping me understand the meaning of the musallah and poses for photographs. With his broad North Queensland drawl and dry sense of humour he is good company.
By 3.15 I am back in the office. I write myself a note to make sure I return the trousers to the collection and pack up the trunk neatly and not to tell anyone that the railway guard’s trousers have had an outing in Cairns in 2016.
You won’t tell will you?