After the flood

On 18 September 2014, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum reopened its doors after a flood forced its closure some five years earlier.

The flood inundated the museum with more than 500mm of rain in 48 hours, and on that fateful night, as cars floated by on the rising waters, volunteers worked feverishly to protect the museum collection. Despite their best efforts the museum building was deemed uninhabitable, and the once burgeoning museum was left without exhibition or collection facility.

As Dr Leigh Summers, Museum Director and Curator explained, the staff and community responded by getting down to work, and planning for a new museum fit for the 21st century.

Within a week of the flooding, swift action by Coffs Harbour City Council saw the collection stored in hired facilities within an industrial area where it remained for the next few years. They also had the foresight to purchase the old police headquarters and police station (on higher ground) and to begin the required restoration immediately.

After five long years of homelessness, the Coffs Harbour Museum opened in September to deafening community acclaim and crowds of enthusiastic visitors.

Despite being without a physical space, the last four years have been a busy period for the museum. Terrie Beckhouse, Museum Coordinator, has led volunteer staff assessing and documenting the collection. During this process they’ve engaged a professional conservator, reviewed the museum’s acquisitions policy and deaccessioned selected objects. The museum reminded the community of their existence with exhibitions in virtual and physical locations; a pop-up in vacant shopping centre windows showcased wedding dresses from the 1870s; the Picture Coffs Harbour project initiated by the library as part of an Australian-wide project, gave the museum the chance to share thousands of photographs from the stored collection.

And after five long years of homelessness, the Coffs Harbour Museum opened in September to deafening community acclaim and crowds of enthusiastic visitors.

The completely new exhibition space has been carefully curated using Leigh’s gallery background which lends a distinct aesthetic to the heritage displays; fewer objects, and more empty space to generate a sense of drama and mischief.

Local Aboriginal culture takes pride of place in the new museum. The displays carefully contextualise the past, while offering a look at the vibrant Aboriginal culture in the Coffs Harbour region today. There is a new documentary on Tony Hart; “who is considered to be one of the area’s finest Indigenous artists and craftspeople, to bring it right up to date,” explains Leigh. 

The museum is in the process of completing a second video interview with Elder Auntie Dee who, according to Leigh, is a political dynamo; “currently working on every committee, in schools, and with disadvantaged Aboriginal kids”.

Local Aboriginal culture takes pride of place in the new museum.

Highlights in the new space include the Communications Room complete with Morse code machine, an Edison gramophone, phonograph rolls and a phonogram, a stereoscope and the magnificent, and quite enormous, projector from the famous TASMA cinema. One of the most popular displays for young and old alike is the tin cans with string – and unsurprisingly, no modern digital gadgetry provides the same simple pleasure of talking and listening into this most fundamental of communication devices.

Looking to the future, Leigh says the museum will be a model of sustainability while striving to create its own income stream. Volunteer staff plan to make good use of the fruit trees in the garden by starting their own Fowler’s Vacola canning system; bottling fruit and vegetables, and processing jams for sale to visitors; and reviving past practices in the form of workshops to contribute to healthy food and healthy living interests.

Congratulations to Leigh, Terrie, the local council and the museum volunteers on a job well done!

Coffs Harbour is a must-see addition to the region’s vivid tourism experience. If you’re traveling in the area check out our Waterfall Way trail and make sure you also experience nearby Port Macquarie. 

Previous PostI’ll have art with that, thank you
Next PostStrange specimens and creepy critters: The art of taxidermy