Interview with a Curator
This interview was intended to capture a relatable snapshot of Michael Strong’s life, so that every-day South East Queenslanders (or anyone for that matter!) could find out a little about his humble beginnings, his long connection to the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology and his contagious joie-de-vie and knowledge which he shares generously with whomever he meets. He met me at the door of his home-office, located in the quiet, sunny suburb of Sandstone Point, just off Bribie Island. He was clearly not the boss of his white hair, and his eyes, which sometimes had a curious sadness, became animated at random as he reminisced with a slight British inflection on the fascinating story of becoming the Curator of the Abbey Museum.
We began to speak.
Michael, tell me a little about your life and how you became the Curator of the Abbey Museum:
There was a pause
Ahhh? Where do you want to start? he asked. It’s a very complicated story, he joked.
I guess much of my story parallels or is a continuation of an amazing community and open air museum – the Abbey Folk Park – that was founded in 1929-34 in England by the Rev John Ward. He also started a spiritual community that sought to take elements from both Christianity and eastern religions to help explain life’s problems and challenges. After the Second World War his folk park closed and he left England with a small group of followers and moved to Cyprus. I was born into the Abbey Community in Limassol, Cyprus, and came with them to Australia where we lived first in Bondi, then Blackheath in New South Wales before moving to Caboolture in 1965. While in Bondi when I was 6-7 years old, I remember these massive wooden crates arriving which contained hundreds of objects — paintings, sculptures, weapons, jewellery and manuscripts — from the Abbey Folk Park’s collection of historical artefacts. For some reason it was incredibly important for me, even as a young child, to be there to see them unpacked.
When the Abbey Community moved to Queensland I worked on the farm milking cows, looking after the pigs, picking tomatoes and pumpkins. But my interest in the collection did not fade and when I was sitting watching pigs farrowing late at night, I was reading books on Greek red-figure pottery and architecture, Etruscan paintings, Indian miniatures or Aztec sculpture, as a way to start to get a better understanding of what was in the collection.
It really worried me that this amazing collection was languishing in a farm shed and eventually I put a suggestion to the Community that we try and get a building to store and display the collection.
At this stage how many boxes were there or how big was the collection?
The collection was still largely packed away in dozens of great wooden crates and we had no idea of what had survived from Ward’s Abbey Folk Park. So, I started to research the collections and write a catalogue based on a series of hand written check-lists that had been left behind by John Ward when he was acquiring the objects for his Folk Park.
In the meantime, because I had been home-schooled to Year 10, I felt I needed a more academic outlook. I went to the University of Queensland and asked if I would be able to have some type of an extracurricular post at the University and access their facilities. It was the resources at the Fryer Library that I was most interested in, because it would give me access to scholarly books and remarkably they said ‘Yes’.
In 1980 I put a new proposal to the Abbey Community to create a museum without all the strings from government and based on obtaining a major grant from the Utah Foundation. And eventually we were successful in getting the largest grant they ever made to a museum in Australia. This was the beginnings of the present day Abbey Museum.
The Utah foundation, that’s Australian or American?
It was American at the time and had strong philanthropic leanings. However, it was eventually taken over by BHP.
In the meantime I was working closely with two designers from the Queensland Museum, who became very good friends; they would come out at nights and we would plan the displays in the Museum. During the day, I would milk cows or pick pumpkins and then work on the collections themselves. But we soon found there wasn’t enough information about individual artefacts so I wrote to European museums — the British Museum, the Museum of London, Oxford asking ‘Can you help us, we have this remarkable collection and it hasn’t ever been documented?’
To support this, I managed to persuade the Queensland Museum to allow their senior photographer to photograph the collections in black and white. So I started to send these prints to Britain and around the world, boxes and boxes of them, to the point where the Keeper of Romano British Antiquities, Catherine Johns, finally said to me ‘Michael, you may be under the impression that the British Museum was founded to support the Abbey Museum, but we do have one or two other things to do in between’. Hearing this I realised that we were in a very difficult situation, as a deadline to open the Museum had been set and there was not that many other places in the world we could turn to for help. But the British Museum saw our need and to our surprise Catherine Johns went on to identified most of our Romano British artefacts — this was a huge and much appreciated effort.
So there are many individuals that have really helped you with the Museum collection.
Enormously, and over time they have become close associates and I owe them a great deal of gratitude. I was also very much supported by Dr Neville Agnew. He is now head of conservation at the Getty Foundation and we became close friends. He was very much a mentor in my early days; he taught me to write clearly and succinctly and encouraged me in many ways. Coming from the Abbey Community without a recognised schooling, it was challenging to find one’s way in the academic world.
Soon after the opening of the Museum, I successfully won a State Government scholarship to go on study leave to Britain to undertake further research on the collections. I was able to visit the British Museum and thank them for their help. I visited dozens of other museums and galleries to talk to their directors and curators about how their collections were formed, how their museums are run, how they looked after their collections and identified objects and the issues that they experienced. I was able, as a brash young colonial, to cut across much of the class system that was in Britain at that time and they found it refreshing.
Tell me what you see as the biggest professional single achievement of your life?
So far, the successful completion of the Abbey Museum. It is now seen as one of the top museums in Australia with a fantastic reputation, high academic and educational standards and it continues to grow and give pleasure and education and help people in many ways. And as a direct result of the Museum’s opening, I suppose founding the Abbey Medieval Festival which has turned out to be a huge tourist attraction for Queensland.
And the Abbey Medieval Festival is now in its 30th year!
Yes in 2019, it’s 30 years old, and when it started, it was this tiny little experiment where we had thirty re-enactors perform to three hundred people who had turned up on a bitterly cold afternoon in 1989. At that time, it was thought the event wouldn’t last more than a couple of years so it was hosted only every second year. I also think, the documentation of the Museum’s collection has been extremely significant, providing provenance and background to the artefacts. In the beginning, all we had was John Ward’s check lists to refer to but now we have an extensive database which is an essential tool for best museum practice.
You mentioned John Ward, can you explain who he is?
The Rev John Ward was an amazing person. Born in 1886 he was what you might call a ‘renaissance’ man, a real savant. He was a very erudite person and he could talk non-stop on dozens of different subjects, from the Fall of Rome to the advent of Hinduism or Neolithic pottery. He wrote more than thirty books and was a contributor to Encyclopaedia Britannica on secret societies. He was the first person in Britain to create life-size reconstructions of prehistoric buildings which he filled with replicas (and probably original artefacts), that attracted huge crowds. Ward’s wonderful Abbey Church was a 13th century tithe barn he re-constructed and documented the whole process. His Abbey Folk Park contained some ninety thousand objects. The Times newspaper called Ward ‘The Man who Moved Houses’, because he would hear about an historic house being demolished and he’d put up his hand and say ‘I’m here, I can come and take it down and we’ll rebuild it at the Abbey Folk Park”. His vision was huge.
Unfortunately, the Second World War and a disastrous court case closed the Folk Park down. By the time the war finished he was a fairly broken person and the Folk Park was almost bankrupted by the court case. He emigrated to Cyprus where he died in 1949. About 5000 objects accompanied Ward in these great crates to Cyprus and then after his death they were eventually brought to Australia still in those same crates.
It’s a story of survival as well.
The Community arrived to Caboolture in 1965 having purchased acreage but knew nothing about farming. They were using books to learn farming that were written during the war period in England. But over the years the Abbey survived and thrived and its little church with stained glass has become part of Caboolture’s history and a foundation for education and culture in the shire. I think today, with the Community becoming part of the initiation of the Multi-Faith movement and having been in Caboolture for more than 50 years, the Community has become very respected and a haven and place of solace and support for many people.
Tell me a little about all the wonderful collection of stained glass.
The stained glass is probably one of the jewels in the Abbey Museum collection. It really is magnificent. It includes a number of internationally significant pieces. There are two main themes. One is the armorial glass that comes from the mortuary chapel of the Shirley family at Ettington. Some of that glass ended up in the Abbey Church here in Caboolture, including six very significant armorial windows which date from the 15th century.
But probably the most important are a number of medieval stained glass panels originally from Winchester Cathedral – the world heritage cathedral in England. If you go to Winchester Cathedral today, the guides talk about this little Abbey church in Caboolture, Australia. They say that the Abbey Church has more medieval stained glass from Winchester than they still have in their cathedral. And we probably have!
Our panels come from the Lady Chapel in Winchester Cathedral where there were three windows that depicted the nativity of Christ, themes from the Book of Revelations and a Jesse Tree which traces the family of Jesus back to the time of King David. They were once part of the crowning glory in the Winchester’s Lady Chapel. The main windows did not survive the English Civil War and most of the big panels in Winchester Cathedral were smashed. The Tudor windows were virtually destroyed, apart from a series of headers high out of reach and it is those windows that are in the Abbey Church today.
One of them — depicting the Angel Gabriel — (seen above) has been called the most important archaeological find in stained glass in the last fifty years by Sarah Brown – the head of English Heritage – so it is wonderful to have such important pieces here in Australia.
What do you say to people that don’t have the same appreciation for history or heritage or for items such as the stained glass. How would you encourage them to visit the Abbey Museum?
While sport is very important to many Australians, there seems to be is a growing interest to understand where people’s roots originate from; when you think about it, for a lot of Australians, their ancestors have come from outside of this country. In many ways, it is by unlocking the past that we can see our way forward into the future. Australia was mostly a reluctant population and the European history of colonization and development that went with it, possibly brought identity issues. So Australians have to prove themselves and in many ways we are doing this, leading much larger countries in sport and also in scientific discoveries. But we need to develop our cultural appreciation and a sense of philanthropy in order to sustain our museums and art galleries.
One of the things that museums like the Abbey Museum can do is provide a link to the past. It is the linkage to the Middle Ages for example the Museum provides that is the reason the Medieval Festival is so successful. The Festival provides an avenue for people trying to relate and connect to that past. Games and television shows such as Game of Thrones, Robin Hood, Lord of the Rings capture the imagination of many people today and inspire them with a sense of history or historical mythology. I believe that perceptions towards history, museums and the past are slowly changing. But we need to make museums relevant to our everyday lives and not seen as archives of lifeless objects.
Expo ’88 was a turning point in Queensland. Because the Abbey Museum has medieval artefacts from Lincolnshire, we developed an important connection with the staff at the Magna Carta pavilion. The Magna Carta was one of the most celebrated documents in British history and people were transfixed by a sense of wonder and timelessness at this exhibition. And despite being one of the most visited exhibitions at Expo ’88, it received incredibly bad press in Britain due to a massive budget deficit. And it led to a most interesting experience in my life.
Four years later when I was going back to Britain on study leave I contacted the Lincolnshire County Cultural Services Director to accept his invitation to stay with him. He spoke despondently about the Magna Carta display and the negative results. And I said ‘NO! It was fantastic, you have no idea what’s happened in Queensland. All of a sudden we have hundreds and thousands of people travelling to Britain because of your cultural exhibition’. He could hardly believe it.
Then to cut a long story short, I was invited to attend an official banquet being held by the City of Lincoln for Princess Michael of Kent. She was a truly lovely person; here I was this young man from Australia who had lived most of his life on a farm… and suddenly I was sitting next to Princess Michael of Kent and answering her questions. She was very supportive and interested. As an experience it’s something you wouldn’t dream about.
So when you returned, what direction did the Museum take? Did it inspire you to do things differently?
It did. I was inspired over the next five years to really try and get the Museum moving beyond where it was. I also took on a position as an assistant archaeologist in 1994 with a newly formed company and we were the first company to involve Aboriginal people as part of the cultural heritage process. In 2004, I formed my own archaeological consultancy, Turnstone Archaeology, working on many projects such as the Toowoomba Bypass and the Wyaralong Dam, to mention just a couple. Edith Cuffe was appointed Museum Director in 2012 and I act as Senior Curator on a volunteer basis.
That brings me to another question, what do you say to people who think that the Abbey Museum is neglecting or ignoring Australia’s first peoples in its displays?
The Abbey Museum does have a big Aboriginal collection but not currently on display. At the time the Museum was being set up, it was decided to focus on the international strengths in our collection. However, the Museum has actively been engaged in presenting local heritage site trails and I was responsible for saving the Toorbul Point bora ground, which was going to be bulldozed for a new development.
And so the interview with the Curator with creative hair came to an end.
And I came to ponder that recently it was said that museums are the most trusted of all institutions. People no longer trust banks, or hospitals or governments but the reputation of museums across the world is still intact. And I wondered why it is that people tend to say ‘boring’ when the word ‘museum’ is mentioned and why sport seems to have a higher media priority than museums which hold our priceless heritage. Are some people worried or afraid to address that there’s more to their lives than just the physical side? As a digression during the interview, Michael noted that one of the things that people say to him when they discover he’s a curator and archaeologist, is ‘I’d love to be an archaeologist’! But where do archaeologists keep the things they find? In a Museum!
I also considered that recently it was said that Canadian doctors will soon be able to prescribe museum visits as treatment and welcome distraction from chronic pain, because it has been realised that not only do museums provide neural stimulation but also people are in touch with art which really helps well-being. And I wonder why there’s not more regard for museums. I also wonder at the story of how such a unique collection of precious ancient things came to be in Caboolture and think how lucky we are to have access to these international treasures.
By Caroline Morrissey