HV McKay crate

Ken Porter, a former Transport Manager at agricultural machinery manufacturer Massey Ferguson, accidentally stumbled into heritage conservation when he rescued a wooden box from a dumpster in 1991. He thought the box might be some use to him at home, but noticed that a square of cardboard was nailed to it, reading: The plaster cast of H.V. McKay. Not to be opened until another one needed.

Man with a crate in a museum store
Ken Porter, Volunteer at Scienceworks, with the mysterious crate he rescued from a dumpster.

For another five years Ken secretly rescued nearly 100 years of history of the McKay manufacturing enterprise. This 'rubbish' was squirreled away and subsequently offered to Museum Victoria where it now forms one of Australia's most significant industrial heritage collections.

'No one thinks of history. Until I found that box I didn't either. It takes a quirk of fate that keeps these things,' recalls Ken, now an Honorary Associate of Museum Victoria. Since 1996, Ken and 20 other ex-employees (with many more from around Australia) have been busy identifying and documenting the collection of 15,000 images, over 700 films, numerous objects, and over 5,000 trade publications.

From humble beginnings, H.V. McKay created the largest industrial enterprise in the southern hemisphere. His equipment was widely used on farms across Australia and was exported to over 150 countries. Following McKay's death, his legacy to Australian agriculture continued through McKay Massey Harris, and later Massey Ferguson (Australia). In 1986, after a period of over 80 years of manufacturing in Sunshine, the company ceased production. This period of major change also included a significant 'clean up' of old company records, which is when Ken's rescue efforts began.

After so many years documenting the McKay Collection, the crate remained a mystery waiting to be revealed. What was inside? How could we open it without damaging the contents?

Wooden box with envelope attached to the top.
HT 14223
Crate - H.V. McKay

Michael Varcoe-Cocks, Conservator of Paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), volunteered his expertise in radiography to help examine the construction and content of the crate before it was opened. Radiography reveals physical features not otherwise visible to the naked eye. It is often used to understand the condition and method of manufacture of a work of art, and doesn't harm the object.

Two people examining x-rays
Examining the x-ray films at NGV.

The x-ray was taken in the NGV's Technical Examination Room. Michael enclosed the crate in lead then passed a beam of x-rays through it. Film sensitive to x-rays recorded an image of the crate, inside and out, which provided useful information for MV Conservator Karen Fisher about how to open the crate. Karen used a Japanese Cat's Paw (mini crow bar) to gently lift the rear panels; inside were two profile reliefs of H.V. McKay, both in plaster, not a 'bust' as indicated on the outside of the crate.

plaster mould ofa man
One of two plaster moulds of left hand side relief profile of HV McKay.

Karen then turned to the letter secured by drawing pins to the front of the crate. She used humidification and a heated spatula to make the paper more flexible and break the seal. The letter confirmed that Wallace Anderson was the sculptor commissioned to create the relief profiles. Anderson worked as an artist for the Australian War Museum, the Australian War Memorial and as an independent sculptor. Anderson's most famous works are 'Simpson and his Donkey' (1935), and busts of nine former Australian prime ministers located in the Ballarat Botanic Gardens (1939-45). He also created the bust of H.V. McKay now on display in The Melbourne Story exhibition at Melbourne Museum.

We still don't know why the profiles were created or whose initials are represented on the lower edge of one of the plaster moulds... but after 20 years, the crate's contents are finally free.

Senior Curator, Sustainable Futures & Lead Curator, Invisible Farmer Project

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