She’s as keen as mustard, is Janet Carding. That was the tone of a feature article on her in our local daily recently. What was once a fusty and in places, woebegone collection of bits and pieces, bibs and bobs, has now been transformed into a happening hub. It’s not quite up there with its newer, flashier, brassier, edgier colleague further up river (MONA), but it’s also not too shabby in comparison, thank you very much. The last time your scribe visited, on a mid-winter morning, TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery) was pumping with people. Ms Carding is newly in the top job. Considering funding restraints – current governments tend to hold such meccas of culture and community activity low on their priority lists – she has a task ahead of her. But she is very determined to maintain standards and patronage. There are plans as big as kunanyi, our city’s stolid overseer, to further expand TMAG, but for the present, it’s a holding process for her until purse strings loosen.
Janet Carding has the view that our local museum is here ‘…to tell Tasmanian stories,…’ and that these will be ‘…forever shifting’. She wants it to be not only the go-to location for tourists to discover much about the island they’re visiting, but somewhere for Hobartians to return to over and over again. She eschews the notion that it be a ‘Night at the Museum’ clone, a ‘…big, stuffy, boring institution full of dusty showcases and uniformed guards saying ‘Shhh…’ That was the old TMAG, not the vibrant new face it displays to its public today – and will continue to do so under her watch.
The first exhibition that came on-line after she took up her tenure, back in April, was ‘The Suspense is Awful – Tasmania and the Great War’. That was what I perambulated down Argyle Street to its site between city and docks that morning to see. By the end of my viewing I was impressed. During the hour or so I spent perusing I had been moved to tears several times. And that is also where I discovered a letter from a father to his son, both personages being intimately involved with another museum. It was a missive, together with its accompanying few words of explanation, that piqued my interest and left me dewy-eyed. It also caused me to take to the ether and to do a little imagining as well.
Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) has had a similar make-over to its southern cousin. It was there that the two men in question spent a very large part of their working lives.
Herbert Henry Scott died on March 1st, 1938. I have no idea whether his son, Eric Oswald made it back for his funeral. He had just commenced some travels in the other hemisphere. I suspect not, given the state of international transport back then – the flying boat service to and from Britain only commenced later that year – see, I’ve done my research. So this is where the imagining comes in. I imagined that somehow he was there to say farewell to his father. What follows is perhaps something akin the eulogy he would have given from a pulpit somewhere in the city on the Tamar, before his father was taken away and laid to rest in Carr Villa Cemetery.
My dear family, my dear friends and friends of my father – I am standing before you, on this sombre occasion, to tell you something of my father – of the man I respected and loved. I will tell you a little of his life and deeds, as well as how a letter from him to me changed the course of my life. You all know his character, you all know how admired he was in this community, particularly in the scope of his preoccupation with the surrounds of this beautiful island that has added so much knowledge of it to the scientific world. You all know the immense contribution he made to our local museum, a place that has afforded most of us assembled here hours of wonder through the many exhibitions he curated. You all know the tireless hours he willingly gave up to enhance that city asset. We also all know, that as I speak, war clouds are again gathering over Europe and that gives me such a heavy heart due to the knowing of what he, my mother and my sister went through during the years of the Great War. Many of you before me also were sorely tested during that period. I will relate to you my own testing time during the last year of that war and how my father was able to prevail on me to take, or rather not take, a certain course of action.
My father was London born, grew up in the United States of America, returning to the UK at age eleven to be apprenticed to a cabinet maker – a trade that would hold him in good stead in later life, building display cases. He was a sickly young man and he was advised to migrate to a climate possessing cleaner air. That turned out first to be New Zealand, but eventually Launceston. After various occupations he was invited to take up the position for which he has become well known and even revered in our city – that of curator of our museum, the Queen Victoria. It was two years after that I came into the world.
Before he took up this position he had been noted by the powers to be as a fine chronicler of the natural environment of Northern Tasmania and he was keen for the Queen Victoria to reflect that. At the onset he found the place, on close inspection, to be in a state of neglect and disarray. He took wholeheartedly to the task of transforming it into the pride of the city it is today. In fact, it would be fair to say he became obsessed by the never-ending tasks he found necessary to complete single-handedly there. My father could be equally seen dusting its various collections as he could be pouring over the books, trying to balance the meagre budget, in his broom-closet of an office. The museum also became a home for his teaching; the passing on of his knowledge of the natural world to students of all ages. He was particularly sort after for his intimate awareness of the native marvels of his beloved adopted island.
The museum expanded during his tenure, adding new galleries and acquiring another building in which to exhibit what previously could not see the light of day due to lack of space. Every new showing he would have to set up himself. He was also busy publishing learned accounts of the natural history of our environs. To my mind, he was a great man; a great man that all who are gathered here will retain positive memories of. He will sorely be missed for his contribution to our community. Of course, as family, we will miss a loving husband and father.
As you are all aware, since 1930 I have worked alongside my father at the Queen Victoria. I am with heavy heart, but nonetheless excited, to be taking over in his role a curator after I complete my travelling scholarship.
In conclusion, I wish to relate to you some of the contents of a letter my dear father wrote to me on the 16th of May, 1918. It was the last year of the conflict and we had discussed the previous evening my desire to do my bit for my country now that I was finally old enough. I informed him that I would be shortly leaving for the front. He was a persuasive letter writer and found it easier to formulate his feelings and arguments in that format rather than verbally. He knew of my mother’s would be reaction to this news and was well aware of the fact that I may not return. Friends of ours had lost loved ones and he determined that I should not be among them. Without that letter there is every possibility I would not be standing here, sending him off, this hour. In part, these are the words he put to paper to me:-
Apropos of our talk last night respecting your keen desire to go to the great war, I wish to pen you a line or two. I have to ask you a very hard thing, namely to put your love for your mother in front of your fixed idea of your duty to State. The decision on your part to serve at the front would end her life with worry so I ask you to spare that life for you and your sister, and also for myself. The law of love for a mother overrules all but the deepest call of state or country.
Always your friend and best chum
In the circumstances, back then, he well knew that he was asking me to make the hardest of calls, given the pressure at the time for all men of my age, who were reasonably of sound health, to sign up. He was well aware of how many in the community would brand me with cowardice and I know it was not a plead he took lightly in the making. Such was my respect I acceded to his wishes.
Thank you for bearing with me for these few words. I will continue to dearly lament the passing of my father for some time.
Now as a father myself I have, since that sojourn to TMAG, often thought what a thing it was for that other father, long ago, to make such a request of a son. How much it must of taken out of him to dissuade him from going – and how relieved he would have been that he was successful in that argument. I would imagine there would be some Muslim fathers around the country at the moment suffering in the same way, anxious that their sons not be tempted by the zealots of IS. In those years, though, the anguish of such a great number of parents, fearing a son joining up and facing the likelihood of death in a foreign land, must have taken a terrible toll. I thought on all that after I read that letter in the TMAG that morning.
No doubt Eric used the occasion, to a degree, to set the record straight – and all too soon another war would again sorely test him. He had already been appalled by what he had seen in earlier travels immediately after the first war, especially how the rest of the world treated the German people who were innocent pawns in the games their leaders had played in the years pre-1914. That and the letter would possibly prove instrumental in Eric deciding to become a conscientious objector, on religious grounds, during the next war. For that he lost his position at the Queen Victoria and was imprisoned.
Before he joined his father, Eric was a teacher, plying his calling at such places as Epping Forest, Devonport and Ulverstone. At the latter he met and married fellow chalkie, Freda Lloyd. After the Second World War Eric returned to his teaching career.
In his later years he became, to his own admittance, quite eccentric and reclusive, dedicating himself to a study of sea-life. He co-authored ‘Fishes of Tasmania’, published in 1983. He wrote over eleven thousand quatorzains, a form of verse – one every day. He was fatally hit by a car in 1987. Eric Scott was survived by a son, as well as two daughters, no doubt giving him also a great understanding of the import of that father’s letter he treasured to his dying day – a letter that may have saved a life. But at what cost to son and father?
Website for the Queen Victoria Museum (above) = http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/qvmag/
Website for the ‘The Suspense is Awful – Tasmania and the Great War’, TMAG = ‘The Suspense is Awful – Tasmania and the Great War’.