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Byron Shire
February 29, 2024

Finding Ballina’s hidden treasure

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Museum volunteers Dr Ann Mulder, Patricia Wilson, Brian Mullens and Henry Burke. Photo David Lowe.

A short drive south of Ballina, at Pimlico, is the recently opened Ballina District Museum. With extra visitors in the area for school holidays, and weather not ideal for the beach, The Echo went along to meet some of the volunteers working to bring the region’s history back to life.

The museum is dominated by numerous large, spectacular photographs, along with interactive spaces and donated objects from different historical eras and locations. The old stage and wings are also utilised as quirky exhibition spaces.

Highlights of the collection include exhibits relating to Ballina’s sugar history, pioneers and notable characters, the bustling days of the river port (when there were three theatres in town), the beginnings of surfing in the area, and the ill-fated Ballina railway, which began as an early work for the dole scheme.

Rare photos show the many transformations of the area over the years.

A new space for old treasures

Brian Mullens, President of the Ballina & District Historical Society, in one of his favourite spaces at the museum. Photo David Lowe.

Brian Mullens is the President of the Ballina & District Historical Society. Like most of the museum volunteers, his family has long connections with the area.

Mr Mullens explained that the museum building was formerly the local hall and the home of the Pimlico Ladies’ Auxiliary. Since 2019 it’s been extensively refurbished, including new wiring, a new roof and disability access, with funding from council and government.

Patricia Wilson is Vice-President and Public Officer at the museum. She said the new museum is trying to fill a niche not occupied by the well-known maritime museum in town, and has been heavily reliant so far on what people have chosen to donate, with the plan to rotate and change the collection regularly.

Dr Ann Mulder and Patricia Wilson. Photo David Lowe.

She said Ballina businesses have also been very generous with assistance of various kinds to get the museum up and running.

Dr Ann Mulder is another keen volunteer, and Secretary of the Ballina & District Historical Society. She told The Echo she got involved after joining a history group at the University of the Third Age, and now helps with organising photos and writing for the museum.

Dr Mulder said the plan is for the temporary display to change every three months, with the photo collection making the museum truly unique. A new Lennox Head exhibit is planned for Lennox’s upcoming centenary, and there will be a focus on other villages and regions within Ballina Shire in coming months, as well as group visits and historical bus tours.

Two early legends of the Richmond River at Ballina, featured at the museum.

Fundraising is another ongoing task, with Bunnings BBQs and promotions in Wallace’s bookstore planned, as well as a heritage fair at the beginning of May, which will also feature machinery and historic cars.

Currently the museum is only open on Fridays and Sundays from 10am-2pm, but there are plans for more opening days and new exhibits as new volunteers get involved.

Unpacking memories

Ann Mulder says it’s amazing what emotions and memories are stirred up for people when they come to visit. ‘It could be a photograph – ‘Oh that’s Bagots Mill, my grandfather worked there,” or “My grandmother had one of those beaters!”

‘It’s really important to go back and unpack those memories,’ she said.

Historic chainsaw and Barlows engine on display. Photo David Lowe.

Museum volunteer and vintage machinery buff Henry Burke says he’s been collecting since he was eight years old.

‘My grandfather used to say to me, “Boy, you’ve going to hang on to this stuff and show it. I’ve been through two world wars, and there’s so much stuff that people throw away and never see again, it’s unbelievable.”

‘So I’ve been collecting for over sixty years,’ he said. One of Mr Burke’s favourite items at the museum is a historic Barlows engine which was built in Ballina, and originally used to drive a cream separator.

The challenge now for the Ballina District Museum is to get the word out about their wonderful new facility, which is slightly off the beaten track for visitors. They are working with other local museums and visitor centres to get on to the tourist trail, particularly for history buffs.

Antique phone exchange, with Dr Ann Mulder. Photo David Lowe.

In spite of COVID restrictions, visitor numbers are steadily rising, with the assistance of the museum’s website and Facebook page. For newcomers to the district, as well as visitors, the Ballina District Museum is a great place to get a grounding in the post-colonial history of the area.

New volunteers are very welcome, as are donations of potential exhibits. Historic photographs can be digitally scanned for reproduction and safely returned.

Please get in touch via the links above, or contact Brian Mullens directly on 0416 187 429. You can also email [email protected]. To visit the museum, take the highway south of Ballina and look for the turn-off to Pimlico.

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