Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space
Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
There are sentimental mementos that people carry with them through life, as they move from house to house. These objects survive new boyfriends, girlfriends, sharehouses, working holidays, sicknesses and affairs; they are part of the shiftable museum of which we’re the curator. It’s a warm feeling of familiarity when you pack your things up in yet another stack of carboard boxes and you’re reacquainted with these things that consciously, or subconsciously, you’ve held onto like old acquaintances that you keep bumping into at the supermarket. ‘Oh, what are the chances of seeing you here again?!’ you might say.
A photo of a deceased grandmother is something you’d expect most people to cherish. Grandmas are of unique significance in a child’s life—they tend to be more relaxed with lollies or fizzy drinks, they have most leisure time so are more enthusiastic about games, movies, talking to animals—but for boys who loved the Spice Girls and witchcraft they were even more important. Grandma completely indulged my rambling opinions and penchant for wands and capes from the day I could speak. We wrote letters to each other, and drank a lot of Coke, and walked endlessly up and down riverside footpaths. We didn’t see each other as much when I moved to the city, but I still saw her most times I ventured back to the country until she died.
The photo frame that holds a snapshot of grandma—who looks tanned and vibrant with cropped hair and enormous glasses—is truly silly. The portrait I carry around of this cherished person from my first twenty-seven years of life, is encased by the model of a cartoonish giant chair, the type you’d see on a children’s show. If you didn’t know our rapport, you’d think it was completely tasteless. But the ugly chair I carry around, with grandma perennially grinning and floating above its cushion, embodies our relationship: filled with magic, questionable style choices, and eccentric storytelling.
East Gippsland—Gunaikurnai country—is a landscape that was once dominated by massive eucalyptus forests that stretched from coastal wetlands to high alpine plains. Over the past 150 years, many of the valleys and river flats in the region have been cleared for farmland, but the remaining bush still dominates the psyche of the locals. Deer hunters stalk their prey at night in the rocky hills, day-trippers hike trails, firefighters backburn, and forestries still (legally and sometimes illegally) log tracts of native vegetation. The bush still feels wild, and something that everyone, to some extent, wants to control. It’s not surprising then, that my grandad spent much of his life preoccupied by wood. He worked in forestries, as a volunteer firefighter, and earnt a living from making innumerable wooden signs, trestle tables, and chairs for local schools, national parks and town councils.
The procurement, management and use of wood became, as a consequence of grandad’s livelihood, a family obsession. I remember playing in the sawdust of his workshop, running my hands against the smoothness of a freshly sanded chopping board, thinking that it was the best scent and texture imaginable. Grandad made a wooden rollaway bar for my parents, and everyone was in awe of its rich colour and incredible weight. He made bits and pieces out of various species of eucalyptus—a major condition being a wood’s density. Later in life, grandad painstakingly created furniture for many of his friends and family, as a kind of parting gift as his carpentry workshop wound down. Everything had that trademark smoothness, those deep shades of red and brown, and with that (sometimes overwhelming) heft.
Grandma was less of a wood connoisseur and more of a firebug. Her modus operandi was to burn anything that wasn’t living or useful. As a family we would have lunches on hand-crafted seats around a wooden table, then venture out to the paddock and watch a bonfire explode and crackle. Grandkids, uncles, aunties, sons- and daughters-in-law would gather transfixed by the flames and smoke, as if watching a sacrifice.
My grandad died only a few weeks after we scattered grandma’s ashes across the paddocks where we’d once lit bonfires. He chose to be buried, aptly, in a solid wooden coffin.
I inherited one of the last things grandad made—a dining chair with luxurious armrests, a curved back, and the weight of a small horse. It is a beautiful object that looks out of context in my office, which is full of cheap furniture and second-hand books. The chair is a masculine and solid presence in my collection of objects that’s both a link to my grandad and the landscape from which I emerged, both as a firebug and lover of wood in all its forms.
In the house where I spent most of my adolescence, the front door had panels of frosted glass that warped objects in the outside world into dream-like shapes and blurs of colour. Something banal like a recycling bin waiting on the curb, with a yellow lid, could look like an open-winged tropical bird. A passing white van would flash by like a ghost.
The house was always cold, apart from a few weeks from late-January to mid-February, and the garden around it was generally sodden. My mum, brother and I had shifted from the dry high country of fast-east Victoria to the low, wet hills of West Gippsland when my parents separated. And although we made a home in this place near the train tracks, and I did love my strange room with bright orange walls and an enormous built-in-robe, the mid-century house on King Street always felt slightly haunted.
I saw a photo of an old work colleague’s painting on Instagram five years ago, and it reminded me of apparitions dancing in frosted glass—a spectrum of dotted and wavey blues with glints of yellow of white, dancing across the surface. I was taken back to the old house and that cold hallway, the sound of an approaching train, and I could see myself wrapped in a blazer and tie, leaving for school. Now, when I look at the painting, I still have that same sense of nostalgia, with a tinge of melancholia, about those uncertain years as a teenager, watching the world unfold through a pane of frosted glass.
Cast iron sailor
When I left home for uni in the Big Smoke, I became swept up in the swirling excitement and improvisation that comes with simultaneously ‘coming out’ and coming-of-age. I lived in a share house, drank goon nightly, and had an anaemic diet of mi goreng noodles and the occasional carrot. While I was so distracted by this new lifestyle, my little brother left for our dad’s farm, and mum departed the house of my adolescence, for a road-trip around the UK. After six weeks abroad, she returned to a new job in a place I’d never heard of—Port Albert.
Sitting on a deep natural harbour on the South Gippsland coast, Port Albert is one of the oldest towns in Victoria. It was established as a shipping station for natural resources—gold, wool, beef—in the mid-19th century. At the time, the area was a far-flung outpost of the British colony of New South Wales, and also the site of horrific massacres which almost eradicated (and entirely dispossessed) the local Gunaikurnai people. Angus McMillan, a Scottish pastoralist, was both an explorer and mass-murderer i who enabled the establishment of European-style agriculture in the area, and he agreed that Port Albert was the perfect place for exporting goods. Today, some of the buildings from that ‘frontier’ era still remain, but there’s little evidence of McMillan or the shadowy history of what’s now a quaint seaside town.
Mum lived in large brick-veneer house down a gravel street and on the edge of a morass. It was one of those places with a surprising layout—small rooms adjoining bigger rooms, with seemingly random corridors wedged in different directions—and smelt vaguely of swamp and old cigarettes. In hindsight it was probably a dreary place, but I enjoyed visiting. My sense of home was abstracted by living in a Burwood share-house with ten other people and paper-thin walls, so I embraced its oddness. Mum did mention that I didn’t visit enough, but without a car it took four hours, and five methods of transport to get there (walking, tram, train, bus, mum’s car).
Apart from a swish seafood restaurant newly perched on the historic Port Albert Wharf, mum’s favourite part of the town was a café-museum-gift shop in a weatherboard building, straight out of a Wild West movie.
‘The coffee is OK,’ said mum, ‘but the things you can buy are amazing.’
The eclectic objects for sale included knick-knacks with ‘Live Laugh Love’ scrawled across them, giant spiky shells, antique fishing equipment, $20 hand soaps, and a vast collection of figurines—fat ladies in bathing costumes, elegant birds with exaggerated steel legs, and earnest-looking sailors. We spent hours looking through everything, and I ended up buying a postcard.
Mum later shifted to a modern townhouse on the foreshore—objectively nicer than the brick-veneer place, but without the spooky charm—and eventually left South Gippsland entirely. That Christmas she gave me a cast iron figurine of a sailor saluting. It was a romanticised and somewhat queer figure from a yesteryear that never existed in Port Albert. The figure was more representative of the randy Navy officers in On the Town than Angus McMillan’s Port Albert. When I look at it on the end-table now, I see it as nothing to do with the town, sailing, or that expensive gift shop—it’s simply a gift from a mother to a son, both of whom are improvising in their new lives.
Plate of stolen rocks and shells
As a little boy, I spent a lot of time searching for rocks in riverbeds. The Tambo river curved around the farm where I spent my first twelve years, and its flow—whether dried up or flooding—was a source of constant conversation at the dinner table. Back then, I was less interested in the health of the environment than the health of my rock collection, so my main interest centred on the accessibility of bone-white quartz, glittering pyrite and blueish stones that all looked like precious gems if the water was clear and shallow. I scooped them out of the river with all the fervour of a prospector who’s stumbled across that long-sought gold nugget.
Over the years I filled up milk crates and boxes of rocks, each of which looked luminous in the water, but less special once they’d dried out. If I had a longer attention span, perhaps I could’ve reassessed the collection every now and then, but I was a regular kid that loved everything new and shiny. So, the rocks quickly just became habitats for spiders in the bungalow. Dad still has a box full of them—untouched for twenty years.
I was more selective with shells, probably because I started to search for them as a teenager, when building sandcastles had become a little embarrassing. Shells were usually smashed up along the Victorian coast, perhaps because of the storm-prone Bass Strait, but the occasional lustre of mother-of-pearl, a delicate fan shell or spotted cowrie did beckon from the sand. I hid my artefacts from excursions to the beach away in a shoebox, and tried to ignore shells I saw when boogie boarding with friends. I was afraid that my enthusiasm for such tiny, ornamental objects could shatter any semblance of masculinity.
Shells and rocks, in a way, became a commodity in my family, like cowries once were around the Indian ocean ii. Mum would give them to me, I would display them, and talk about their rareness with anyone who’d listen. I would take them from national park beaches (don’t tell anyone) and smuggle them through customs. I gave them to past boyfriends, who found them a puzzling thing to receive. I took photos of them and shared on social media.
I keep a plate of shells and rocks on my set of drawers at home. They’re beautiful specimens from Vanuatu, Cape Tribulation, Wineglass Bay, and the Gippsland coast. The plate is made by a Melbourne ceramicist. The object as a whole is incredibly bourgeois, but now, aside from memories of holidays, and of a wide-eyed kid who found glamour in digging riverbeds, it serves as a document of cluelessness.
I didn’t have a sense of shell collection as being potentially problematic—how taking something from another’s ancestral country could be ignoring Indigenous peoples’ links to the land—until I had an awkward conversation with my current boyfriend:
‘I have a shell for you!’ I said.
‘Oh, nah, it’s not from my Country,’ he said.
Now, I can’t help but think about that awkward moment and reassess why I have the need to collect and store these objects at all.
I still have the shells and rocks, but now they have a slightly different function. While being pretty, they spark a recognition that, whether they’re in national archives or in the autobiographical museums we create for ourselves—our homes, our Instagram accounts—our emotional attachments to objects are subjective and exist in a wider, postcolonial world.
These shiftable, shifting museums we create about and for ourselves are a projection of who we were, who we are and who we want to be. I’m not a reality TV-level hoarder (yet), and I am definitely not Marie Kondo; but I think everyone could benefit from carrying a few things through life—not necessarily a heavy wooden chair or platefuls of rocks—that remind us, as individuals, that we’re all built from a million jigsaw pieces of experience, some of which are awkward, bland, messy, or wavey-blue like frosted glass.
Grandma in a (ridiculous) photo frame. Location: high on the bookshelf in our office.
Grandad’s extremely heavy chair. Location: shifts between the lounge room and office (still unsure about where to keep it).
A painting of frosted glass. Location: leaning against the wall, collecting dust.
Cast iron sailor. Location: underneath my monstera on an end-table in the kitchen, next to a smiling Buddha
Plate of stolen rocks and shells. Location: on top of a chest of drawers, next to my collection of hand creams and ‘Hummusexual’ badge from Téta Mona (Lebanese restaurant in Brunswick).
i Mahoney, Ciarnan. (2019) ‘The Scottish explorer who became the butcher of Gippsland’ The Guardian (accessed October 5, 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/08/the-scottish-explorer-who-became-the-butcher-of-gippsland
ii Litster, Mirani. (2016). Cowry Shell Money and Monsoon Trade: The Maldives in Past Globalizations.
Max Hayward is a Melbourne-based arts marketer, writer and events coordinator. He is also a true crime podcast tragic, hopeless at crosswords, and makes mean margaritas. You can read his film reviews in Lindsay Magazine and a selection of his short stories and essays at I’ll do it today. His short story The Return was the recipient of 2nd prize at the 2020 OutStanding Stories Competition.