There’s a new horsey face to be seen around our Mitchell repository this week. This champion racehorse is a bright chestnut with polished hooves, silky mane and tail and something of a beady-eyed stare. Though unrivalled on the track, he’s a diminutive fellow at not quite two hands high. ‘Jackson’ arrived recently from Birdsville, a small Queensland town some 1600km west of Brisbane and the scene of his trackside triumph. Continue reading
In December 1889, Dr G. A. Thorne from Melbourne found himself with a spare fortnight at his disposal. A keen bike rider, he decided to take his new ‘taut and trim’ safety bicycle (that he referred to as his ‘trusty little horse’) by train to Sale in Gippsland, Victoria. From there he would cycle to Sydney, following the coast as closely as possible.
On the first day of riding, when he approached Bairnsdale, a horse drawn buggy approached from the opposite direction. The horse appeared to grow restive. The woman driver yelled at Thorne to get off his bicycle. He dismounted and slowly approached the horse, leading it further along the way. As he did so, she blackguarded the good doctor in what he described as an ‘absurd manner’. ‘The Government’, she raged, ‘should not allow “those things” on the road’. Thorne retorted that she should learn to drive before taking charge of a horse. He then left the scene only to be ‘followed by a torrent of abuse’.
Thorne thoroughly enjoyed the rest of his two-week adventure, but it was not without challenges. He relished in the ‘delightful’ landscape, the undulating pastures and ‘waving grasses’ but was profoundly disturbed by long stretches of ‘solitary silent bush’. He encountered black snakes, Aborigines, and bullock teams clearing forest.
He met another horseman along the way. Not having seen the bicycle, the man asked Thorne – who was wearing the very latest in men’s cycling attire – if he was with a circus! Thorne obliged his curiosity by introducing him to his new machine. As Thorne soon discovered, the solitude was one thing but ‘perhaps the most tiresome feature about bicycle pioneering is that you are expected to answer the same running fire of questions as to how fast you can ride etc.’.
Like many early cyclists, Thorne quickly realised that the bicycle was as fast, if not faster, than riding a horse. This was something than many dedicated horse riders found difficult to accept. After crossing into New South Wales, Thorne struggled up some steep and rocky hills. A party of horsemen overtook the cyclist, chuckling at his difficulties. Once Thorne reach the summit, however, he let his bicycle ‘rip, and dashed past in a way the startled horses are not likely to soon forget.’ It seems that our respectable doctor did have something of the lycra-wearing weekend warrior in him, after all.
Thorne made Kiama in good time, in fact, about the same time as the local horse-drawn coach. He had completed his 500-mile journey in less than two weeks. He then caught the train to Sydney and boarded the steamer back to Melbourne.
The bicycle has been a vital part of Australian life for over 130 years. Although from its introduction in the 1870s it rapidly became a relatively unremarkable feature of daily life in towns and cities, the bicycle has remained a complex, provocative and powerful symbol. The road rage we see today is just another incarnation of a complex cultural debate about how humans should move that has been going on for a very long time.
The symbolic associations of the bicycle in Australian life will be explored in a new exhibition called Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia, currently under development at the National Museum of Australia.
Belgian professional cyclist, Felix Sellier, calmly expresses his displeasure at being hit by a car during the 1920 Tour de France.
Image: Wikimedia Commons: Nationaal Archief.
Dr Thorne’s account of his journey can be found on Trove.
Today marks 150 years since the birth of Australian poet Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Given that the talented horse rider took his pen name ‘Banjo’ after a racehorse owned by his family, it is not surprising that Paterson’s work was filled with lively descriptions of horses and riders in various settings, in particular the high country of New South Wales and Victoria. Paterson’s passion for his subjects can be found in each word of his poems, with a distinctive rhythm that brings their actions to life for his readers. It is perhaps those qualities that have given Paterson’s work its longevity, so that generations after his words were written, Banjo’s equestrian ballads are still a defining marker for the characters and lifestyles they have come to represent.
Nowadays when you talk about a ‘work horse’, you are probably referring to a ute, truck or some other form of mechanised equipment. In the not too distant past, a work horse was, as the phrase suggests, a heavy horse used for work and most likely for haulage. In many museums (including the National Museum) you can view displays of machinery that these horses hauled or powered. Rarely, however, do you see or think about the objects that helped to power the horses. Continue reading
With Chinese New Year celebrations now underway around the world, 2014 is a year to consider the beauty and power of the horse. As 2014 is the year of the Wooden Horse, it is particularly poignant for the Horses in Australia project team at the National Museum, and a good time to reflect on a few horse stories in the Museum’s collections.
In a few weeks time, on the 25th February, the Royal Automobile Club of Australia will be celebrating the Year of the Horse with its inaugural Horsepower Dinner. The club is generously donating to the National Museum $30 for each person booked for the event to help support our Horses in Australia project, and especially our exhibition which opens in September. You can find more details about the dinner, and how to purchase tickets, here.
The Museum’s People and the Environment team is heading off on holidays, but we’ve left you a few ’gifts’ to enjoy over the summer holidays.
To help you pass those lovely lazy days we’ve just launched new pages on our People and the Environment website. If you’re following the Horses in Australia project, you’ll enjoy a glimpse of our forthcoming exhibition, opening in Canberra in September 2014. We’ve included some of our first ideas about what the show will look like, but we still need your help deciding on the exhibition’s title. If you’ve a few minutes to spare please do complete the name survey, open until the end of January.
In every curator, there’s surely a bit of the forensic investigator and I’m currently playing sleuth in an excellent mystery – an equine ‘who-is-it’.
When the National Museum’s Horses in Australia curatorial team started work on the project earlier this year, one of our first tasks was to discover what the Museum already held in its collection’s relating to equine and equestrian history. We searched through our online collection database, read through some thick paper files and asked the curatorial ‘hive-mind’ - that is, our colleagues - what they knew about our horse related holdings.
As an intern with the National Museum I’ve had the amazing opportunity to spend some time getting hands on with objects while the Horses in Australia project is being put together. It’s a mammoth task and takes a lot of work from people in a number of different sections of the museum. Most recently I worked with the National Museum Conservation Team on a landau horse drawn carriage that has spent a large chunk of the last 50 years stored in a shed on the ‘Springfield’ property south of Goulburn.
Though at times exhausting, the events of last week have reminded me just why I love my job so much.
My talented film-maker colleague, Jeremy Lucas, and I have just returned, footsore and triumphant, from an epic four days of filming in Melbourne and regional Victoria. As part of the Museum’s current Horses in Australia project, we’re working on a short documentary film to be produced in-house. The film will explore the background of one of my favourite objects in the Museum’s collection – a horse-drawn wagon used by the Tighe family to deliver milk to suburban Essendon between the 1950s and 1980s.