Welcome to Hidden Histories: Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery, the third episode of series two of the Bundaberg Now Podcast.
If its walls could talk the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery would have plenty of stories to tell from its previous lives as Customs House, a bank and a library.
Former staff have shared stories about the historic building’s quirks, some spooky encounters and share their own special connection to the building.
Roana O'Neill, who has worked in the building in Council's gallery team, remembers visiting artists having close encounters of the spooky kind.
The living quarters for the visiting artists is located on the second floor of the building, but not everyone enjoyed a good night sleep.
“She was outside of the building, quite frightened and I got out of the car and asked if everything was okay,” Roana said.
“She'd had some sort of energy ball or orb in her bedroom with her that had kept her up all night. And her phone had been doing very odd things and she was quite scared and very frightened.”
Chris Spence spent 10 years working in the gallery and recalls how, on one occassion, a child's frightened scream sent her running upstairs to the upper exhibition space.
“And I said to him, what's wrong? And he said, I saw a ghost… ” Chris said.
“But he was, you know, very, very frightened. It wasn't a case of he was just messing around. He actually believed he saw something.”
Listen now to hear the gallery's ghostly tales:
In this series we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings and infrastructure in our region.
Listen as we uncover memories, mysterious ghost stories and bizarre facts about some of our most iconic structures.
In this episode we get an insight into stories of staff and guests at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery who have gotten a little more than they bargained for.
Subscribe to the podcast here.
Ghostly tales from the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery transcript:
Gennavieve Lyons [00:00:05] Welcome to this special series of the Bundaberg Now podcast, where we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings of our region. My name is Gennavieve. I'm your host and I invite you to listen along as we uncover some hidden histories, mysterious stories and some pretty bizarre facts about our most iconic buildings and structures. I've been really looking forward to today's episode because today we get to take an in-depth look into the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery building, which you'll find on the corner of Barolin and Quay Streets. This building is no stranger to change, having been originally built as Customs House in 1902. It was then a bank for over 50 years, then a library for six years and art center. And now, as you see it today, the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery. Adele Bennett from Bundaberg now got a little insight into the quirks of this historically listed building by speaking with two council staff members who have their own special connection to the building. While she's now part of the park's team, Roana O'Neill worked in the building for 15 years and Chris Spence spent 10 years working in the building before starting as coordinator at the Bundaberg and District Historical Museum. They shared their knowledge on the building's history, as well as some of the spookier encounters of the staff, arts and gallery guests over the years.
Adele Bennett [00:01:28] I'm here with Roana O'Neill and Chris Spence, who both spent time working in One Barolin street early on in the art gallery days. Welcome to the podcast!
Roana O'Neill [00:01:37] Thank you so much. We're excited to be here.
Adele Bennett [00:01:39] So, Roana, can you tell me a bit about your time here and a bit about what the building means to you?
Roana O'Neill [00:01:45] I started here as Public Programs Officer, which was a new position the gallery started, so it was running all the educational programs for school groups and community groups. So that was fantastic for me because I was able to create programs which bridged the artworks and people's understanding of what the exhibitions were when they came through to see them. So, the building to me is a really important special building to me. I spent 15 years here working and developed lots of friendships with my colleagues and met a lot of artists and people that stayed here, and there's a lot of history in this building, so it's a really wonderful building to explore. It has so many different aspects to it, so I've really enjoyed my time here.
Adele Bennett [00:02:27] Great. And Chris, while you were here as part of your role you were doing open house tours delving into that history a bit. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Chris Spence [00:02:37] Well, that was an exciting time because the gallery was opened up for tours. People did not see behind the scenes. So, on those tour days, we'd open the artist-in-residence as usually didn't have an artist in there at the time. People saw into the two kitchens behind the scenes, things that people didn't realise was actually going on in a gallery. A lot of people come into the gallery, and they just look around. They appreciate what is on the wall and everything in the exhibitions. But the one thing was that with it, everybody could come in, we did a bit of a talk on what was on exhibition and then came up and they saw behind the scenes, and they saw that it wasn't just, oh, overnight that artworks just happened to appear. You know, there were no special fairies that came and did things. There was a lot that went on behind the scenes. So that was a very important time for people to learn actually what was going on in the building. It wasn't just a building sitting there that housed artworks.
Adele Bennett [00:03:41] Great and before it was an art gallery, it had a few iterations of lives as different things. Can you tell me a bit about all the different uses it's had throughout its history?
Chris Spence [00:03:52] It started off as the Customs House, the original Customs House was just a small timber building that was down Targo Street. Then, as more and more trade came to Bundaberg, of course you needed a larger Customs House. So, the building was built for the Customs House. After that, it became the Commonwealth Bank. The Commonwealth Bank bought it because they needed a bigger building and you know, the banking was on the go then. So, you know, 10 o'clock in the morning, they'd open up and they'd be closed, I'm not sure, I think it was about four o'clock in those days as well. But yes, so that was that was very good. And then after the Commonwealth Bank built the new building around in Borboung Street, the library came in here as it was only a small section of books and that was over at the School of Arts. So it wasn't really a good town library, so they came into the building and they were able to operate in here. And when they had a generous donation by one of the former farmers out of his estate, then they built their own building. And so the Art Gallery was able to come here. So we had a dedicated Art Gallery. Before that, it was just artworks hanging in the School of Arts in the lower level. So that was really good, we then had the gallery. So to, from the time that it went from the library to the art gallery, there was major works undertaken by council and all the floors downstairs were all the timber was ripped up and it was all tongue in groove, all punched, nail punched in and all of that. So it was all done just to welcome in the Gallery to make it suitable for the art, the Bundaberg collection.
Adele Bennett [00:05:47] Oh, great. So as part of that transformation to an art gallery as well, we had artist in residence residencies available for people to come and stay while they were here. I want to. Can you tell me a bit about the use of that? And artist coming to stay?
Roana O'Neill [00:06:04] We're so lucky to have that space upstairs. So the artist in residence used to be where the bank manager's family used to live. So it's quite a spacious area. So to transform that into a residency for artists meant that people could come up say from Brisbane and wouldn't have to worry so much about trying to find funding for accommodation and things like that. So it made it a lot easier for artists to stay. It also meant that people could stay for quite a while. We had somewhere onsite where they could meet with schools. They could do talks about their exhibitions. So it really gave us that flexibility, and it meant that people could really sometimes even create a body of work when they were here. We do have quite a funny story, actually from one artist that was staying here in the residence. We had a few, we actually had three people from France staying and they were doing some beautiful work and a lot of them doing workshops. And we had a gentleman that was doing photography and he liked to dress in black every day. So from literally head to toe, always dressed in black each day and always had his camera pointing out of the window onto Barolin Street. And one day we had a very concerned call from one of the buildings that located opposite the gallery to let us know that they'd been monitoring the building for the past week and that we had a spy located in our building. But don't worry, they had been watching him and they described him and said he's all dressed in black and he has a big camera, and I had to tell them not to worry that it was indeed one of our artist in residences and that he was very harmless and very safe and more. Now more than welcome to come over and meet him if they wanted to
Adele Bennett [00:07:44] Keeping an eye on the street below!
Roana O'Neill [00:07:46] Yes, that's right.
Adele Bennett [00:07:48] And I have also had other interesting stories about the artists that have stayed here over the time and some more spooky aspects of their time. Do you want to tell me a bit about other things you've been told from people that have stayed?
Roana O'Neill [00:08:02] I do know two artists that relayed stories back to us. So one gentleman actually came down to complain to me that he was no longer able to do any work until we got the ghost removed from the building because he'd been up all night and it had been pushing things over in the apartment and he was quite exhausted and had quite enough of this. So I had to come upstairs to see the different objects that the ghosts had pushed over during the night, which included a whiteboard. And I think some personal effects and all I could do was try and assure him that, you know, we obviously, we wanted to take care of him and make sure that he was safe, but there wasn't really a whole lot else I could do at that stage. Another artist was running a workshop for us, and she had to get back to the airport, so I had offered to pick her up on the weekend and drive her to the airport back to Brisbane, and when I came to pick her up, she was outside of the building, quite frightened and I got out of the car and asked if everything was okay. And she said that she could probably no longer go back into the building because again, she'd been up all night. Chris Spenc. So I had to go upstairs and collect her bags for her and take her to the airport. And she said that while she loved spending time in Bundaberg, she wasn't sure that she'd be able to come back again for a residency with us.
Adele Bennett [00:09:44] Wow. So I guess the fact that it's been more than one tells you it's not so much the eccentric artist that there may actually be something lurking around the building. So Chris, how about you? Have you ever had any experiences or any of the staff members you've worked with had any experiences?
Chris Spence [00:10:00] We had one staff member that used to come in early because she had to go and be interviewed on the radio, so she'd come in early so that she could get her head around what she was going to talk about. And I came in one day and she says to me, we've got the ghost here. I said, what? she says, we've got the ghost here. I said, what ghost? She said the printer keeps on going and there's nothing coming through and I'm not printing anything. She was quite concerned about that. But we did have one visitor who was a child, and I heard this really, really terrible, frightening scream. And of course, I came flying upstairs because our office was straight underneath here and of course, came flying up stairs and this poor little boy was sitting out in near the door, round the corner, and he was just shaking. And I said to him, what's wrong? And he said, I saw a ghost. And I said, where did you see a ghost love? Not wanting to sort of put him down or anything because he was genuinely shaking. And I said where did you see a ghost love? He says in that room there. And I said, what did the ghost do? It jumped out the window. Well, at this stage we had some painters outside on scaffolding and I thought, Okay, he obviously saw one of the painters go across the window even though we had the shades down. And I said to him, look, darling, there's painters out there. They're on the scaffold. You probably saw that. No, no, no. I saw somebody jump out the window. And when he described it, it was a period costume that he'd seen this man jump out. So I sort of proceeded to get the supervisor to come up because, you know, I sent one of the other children down, the supervisor who came up and sort of calmed the child down and took him downstairs. But he was, you know, very, very frightened. It wasn't a case of he was just messing around. He actually believed he saw something. I have since I started work here, and these stories have been coming out about ghosts and sightings and that, I'm at the historical museum and I looked through our files not saying that we've got everything on file, but we can't find anything that may have happened in this building to cause anything like that. So we really don't know. We'd love to know.
Adele Bennett [00:12:34] I guess if anyone has any more information than we do, love to hear about it.
Roana O'Neill [00:12:39] I do remember that I was working here late one night in the office downstairs and I was head over my desk typing away, and I heard some footsteps. At the time in the lower gallery we just had timber floors. We'd had carpet for a number of years and then we'd had that removed. You have this beautiful timber floor downstairs, and the footsteps were very clear. They were, they sounded like a man's dress shoe with a slight heel on them. And I remember looking up and I half got out of my chair because I thought, oh, there's still one of the staff members here. I haven't said goodbye to them. I'll get up and say goodbye, but then realised that it was after six o'clock. It was dark outside and I had said goodbye to everyone. The team had already left for the day, but the unusual thing was I remember counting five footsteps in my head. So the last that, you know, the footstep didn't sort of land and so on, hearing that I shut the office door and packed up all my things and left quite soon after that. But we have had a lot of people that have come to the gallery as visitors or here for meetings. And as Chris mentioned, a lot of them just in conversation, do mention a ghost that resides here, and we're not having a conversation about that necessarily, but obviously these are people who maybe see things or feel things, and they do tell us as a lady that lives in the gallery and she does wear like a period costume dress, and a lot of them hear the rustling of that sort of crinoline dress on her.
Adele Bennett [00:14:17] So from a historical perspective, now that you're at the historical museum, Chris, how important are these buildings to the character of Bundaberg?
Chris Spence [00:14:25] Over the years, this building has been changed as it's been repurposed. The facade has been changed to cater for that. And in the early days, there was not what we call the access studio at the back. That wasn't covered in. That's an access studio. We've also got store rooms and everything like that out there. So, you know, it has been repurposed for the things and a lot of times while changing the outside look and the look inside, they've tried to stay with it as much as possible, like the vaults downstairs. They were a thing left over from the bank. One of them, the large vault is actually the collections storage. The other vault, the door was taken off because it's now an exhibition space. So, you know, they are part of this building. It's part of the history. So it's really good that that has been left as it is because it does show it's very significant. It shows what this building has gone through, like even with the bank, you had the tellers in there as you came in, you've faced this massive bench, which was the tellers behind it. And then when the library came, that was all taken out. That was changed. So you had different sections like a children's section, etc. Like you've got over at the library now. So, you know, each change, it's been modified, but still keeping as much as possible. And, you know, fair enough, with heritage listed buildings, you have to if you're doing renovations or anything like that, you have to renovate with like minded material, which it's getting harder and harder these days to get things that you can. Like if it's cedar your supposed to do it with cedar. You know this building, it fits right into a certain era and it fits in with that. So I think, you know, if we can keep as much as possible. People are going to come and see it. People will come because they don't want to see the modern, they want to see the architecture of the past.
Adele Bennett [00:16:48] And now that we're no longer doing open tour like we might have in the past. Can people come down to the historical museum and find out a bit more about Bundaberg’s history down there?
Chris Spence [00:16:59] Definitely. We're open seven days a week, so that's no worries at all, and we do focus on Bundaberg's history.
Adele Bennett [00:17:07] Perfect, thank you both so much for joining us today. It was lovely to have a chat.
Roana O'Neill [00:17:10] Thank you.
Gennavieve Lyons [00:17:12] Thanks for listening to that snapshot of the history of our Art Gallery building. Tune in again next month when we hear about another of Bundaberg heritage buildings and structures.