WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Tom Harwood, Curator, Qantas Founders Museum
In 1960, about the time I decided my life’s ambition was to fly a Boeing 707 with Qantas, Larry Verne had a million-selling hit called, ‘Please Mr Custer’ which had that question at the end of every verse. It’s one that echoes in my mind quite often, especially when people ask how I came to be the curator at the museum which is dedicated to telling the story of Australia’s iconic airline.
I was born with a congenital brain defect called aviation. My parents had an interest in aeroplanes but they were happy to look and sometimes be passengers. For me, it was an addiction and my folks fed it. Many a hamburger was consumed in our Austin parked at the fence at Eagle Farm Airport – back in the days when you could drive right up to the fence.The other family interest was Australia – its history & geography and we covered most parts of the country east of the Adelaide-Darwin line in our various road trips before tourism and bitumen roads were fashionable in many places.For me, of course, that interest found its major expression in aviation history and from Grade 3 on, I could always found a way to turn at least one composition or essay topic a year into a dissertation on the story of aeronautical things.
But, I still wanted to fly that 707 and when Qantas started a Cadet Pilot Scheme, that was my one real goal in life. Then, in Grade 11, with 747’s about to come on line, they decided there was a glut of pilots, dropped the Cadet programme and said they wouldn’t be hiring for a long time and my dream went, Phut!
The only other thing that really interested me was radio. I fancied being a DJ but soon discovered it’s not the sort of business where you just walk in off the street. I wound up as a clerk with the Brisbane City Council and started learning to fly with Redcliffe Aero Club so I have a Private Pilot Licence.
After 18 months in the Council, I managed to get into radio with that great training organisation, the Radio Broadcasting Network of Queensland at 4VL in Charleville & 4LG in Longreach before I moved on to 4Ay in Townsville and 4NA in Nambour where I started researching and producing historical features – mostly but not all musical.
My next move was to university and, three years later, I emerged with a degree in Journalism and Religious Studies to step straight into the role of journalist with SEQ-TV in Bundaberg. A year later, I became Chief Executive of the Christian Television Association of Queensland where, among other things, I was presenting a weekly programme for teenagers until a fundamentalist element took control and I was asked to leave.
Next move took me to ABC Radio News at Toowong in Brisbane as a journalist. It wasn’t long before I developed an Aviation ‘round’ and became the specialist reporter on aviation as well as covering more general stories, including a large part of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in the state and parts of the fallout such as the national scoop when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen resigned as Premier.
Sent to Longreach to relieve as the journo for the month of February 1989, I met a couple of chaps who were part of a group which was about to hold their second public meeting to discuss an idea to create a museum about the early days of Qantas in Longreach. The first had been held the previous August. I did an interview and a news story about them and thought that’d be the end of it, as far as I was concerned.
My next move, still with the ABC was as the journo and sole representative on the Sunshine Coast.
Just under two years later, in January 1991, I was back in Longreach for what wound up being ten years as the Morning Presenter for ABC Western Queensland before moving up for another ten years as the Regional Programme Manager, still in Longreach.
That also brought me back in contact with the museum project and, in September 1991, I found I had a place on the committee and then the board which was working to make it happen until April 1995 when I stepped down because I was about to marry a beautiful lady and I didn’t have time to juggle two major projects around work so I had to let one go and it wasn’t going to be the marriage.
Stage 1 of the Qantas Founders Museum opened in June 1996 with Stage 2 following in March 2002 and ABC Western Queensland did a number of outside broadcasts from there for significant events such as the opening of Stage 2 and the arrival of the Boeing 747 in November 2002.
I retired from the ABC in February 2011 and we decided to stay in Longreach. Within six weeks, I was asked to do a Heritage project on the 1922 QANTAS Hangar, the oldest surviving civil aviation structure in Australia. The idea was to research the history, develop a guided tour for visitors to the museum and write a book which was anticipated to be 32 pages and take about a month.
I soon discovered that much of what’s been written and accepted as the history of Qantas is a fair way from the truth so the book has grown to about 400 pages and, after six years, is undergoing yet another rewrite because the research which seems to never end has turned up more information which must be included. This seems to be what happens when you’re determined to winnow the truth from the legend.
Then I was asked about becoming a guide for the Museum’s Jet Tour of the Boeing 747 and 707 where I found the information somebody (apparently a public relations agency) had compiled for guides to give visitors was inaccurate in many ways so I did more research and remodelled the script to make it correct.
The chap who’d been the curator had resigned a couple of months before I retired and hadn’t yet been replaced so I was being asked to provide the answers to technical and historical questions being asked by visitors and on emails which tended to create a reasonably accurate an impression of me as someone who knew a fair bit of aviation and historical stuff.
That led to my being asked if I was interested in taking on the curator position and I decided I was, if I could learn a bit more about what that meant.
I bought a very good book on the subject and the Museums Australia manual and studied them. Museums and Gallery Services Queensland also offered a scholarship for curatorial study and I was able to spend a week picking the brains of a variety of staff at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and another week with David Crotty, the curator at the Qantas Heritage Centre at Sydney Airport.
The rest has been largely picked up on the way along because I have a strong belief that the day you stop learning is the day you die and if you aren’t learning, you might as well be dead so the process continues.
On the rare occasions I do tours now, I tell kids to listen to their teachers because you never know where life’s going to take you and, apart from simultaneous equations which I’m sure only exist in Maths textbooks, you never know what’s going to useful to you later in life.
If someone had suggested to me, even ten years ago, that I would wind up doing what I’m doing now, I would have laughed at them yet here I am, discovering that lots of the skills and knowledge I’ve picked up and developed over the last sixty years have equipped me to do just what I’m doing now.
And, maybe that’s the answer to the question, ‘What am I doing here?’
The QFM attended the Avalon International Airshow in February/March 2017 where Tom joined the team promoting the museum and its attractions.
Tom wa sjoined by John, Mark and Nicole and they all ran the QFM display tent…. and kept people educated and interested across the week.
Down Under Aviation News thanks Tom and the QFM team for their assistance in making this insight story and interview possible.