DWCA Founder Kerrie Dougherty Awarded OAM

Kerrie Dougherty, one of the original founders of the DWCA, has had a long and interesting career outside the club which has seen her curating science fiction exhibitions, running Dalek races, writing books, and even undertaking academic work in space archaeology! One of her published papers, a case study of volunteer rocket retrieval in Australia, appeared in a Cambridge Scholars Publishing book that also had a paper on representations of archaeology in Doctor Who. Plus, she even wrote content for the Doctor Who Visual Dictionary. In 2020 her many achievements were formally recognised in the Australia Day honours list, where she was awarded a Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia in the General Division.

The DWCA would like to extend our congratulations to Kerrie, and to honour her have included below the interview with her that first ran back in 2016 in Data Extract 233. Thanks to Lauren Davis and Dallas Jones for conducting the interview. The image below is a portrait of Kerrie by Melbourne Based Oil Portrait artist Leo Flander.

You graduated from Sydney University with a degree in archaeology – how did you then end up working at the Powerhouse Museum?

Well, I actually went on to study archive administration, but I was always a space fanatic as well as a science fiction fan. And after I finished the archives course – this is before the Powerhouse Museum actually existed as the Powerhouse – the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences was advertising for a registration assistant for four months. I knew they wanted somebody to catalogue Sydney Observatory, which had just been taken over, but it had then been closed down as a functioning observatory and given to the museum to develop into a museum of Australian Astronomy. When I went to the interview, I made a point about the fact that I knew about astronomy, as well as having the historical and the archival knowledge. And that got me my first job at the museum cataloguing Sydney Observatory. It was supposed to be for four months and I was there for exactly 31 and-a-half years! That wasn’t too bad for a four month job!

While you were there I understand you managed to host Dalek races. How did that come about?

In 1995 we took an exhibition that was actually originally developed in Perth, called Special Effects: The Secrets Behind the Screen. And there were a couple of things I wanted to do with this exhibition, one of which was to get genuine science-fiction props into it, because the exhibition had a lot of interactive material, but not a lot of artefact material that actually related to science-fiction film and that. And of course, I wanted to try and get some Doctor Who stuff into there. I talked to the people at BBC Worldwide and persuaded them to let us have their Dalek. We did a bit of a deal with them – they wanted to have the voice circuit on it repaired, so they said they’d loan it to us if we repaired the voice circuit. So that’s what we did! If you happened to see that exhibition back then, we actually had the Dalek displayed in a nice prominent position and on a circuit it would go off and go “Exterminate! Exterminate!” and that sort of thing.

One of the things that we also do in conjunction with special exhibitions is we develop public programs to go with them. So I thought it’d be really nice if we could get them to start doing Dalek races as part of the public programs. Through the club I got in touch with various people who had Daleks and were prepared to loan them to us, so we could run a series of Dalek races at different times across the life of the exhibition. That restarted the program of having Dalek races every so often, at the museum.

What sort of care did you have to take in handling the original props?

As you would with any museum artefact. We treat everything that comes into the museum, even if it’s only a film prop, as a valuable artefact in the same way you would treat a Fabergé egg. They are handled appropriately with gloved hands – you treat them as if they were really valuable artefacts. In terms of their social history context they are really valuable artefacts.

Is there a contrast between that and holding Dalek races?

Ah, but those Daleks are fan made, so they aren’t artefacts. The difference is, with the Dalek races, that those are fan made props, so they haven’t been used in the show. With the Dalek races, the people who built the Daleks usually brought their own, which is a different thing from the BBC or Lucasfilm or somebody else entrusting their materials to us to put on display.

Is there much of a difference between curating and policing a museum of historical artefacts and a museum of science-fiction?

Curating is a particular thing that you do – policing people is what the museum security people do! But when you design an exhibition, you design it so people don’t get the chance to damage the objects. You’ve got to allow people good visual access, but at the same time you can’t allow them to touch it. And you certainly can’t give them the opportunity to steal it. One of the things that we always tried to do at the Powerhouse was to have as much on open display as we could. But then that requires you to design the exhibition so that people can’t touch the objects. With the Dalek, for example, we had that on an open display, but it was set at the back of a plinth with about a metre in front of it, so you couldn’t reach over and get to it over the barrier.

It was the BBC’s decision that people weren’t to photograph it, though. Generally speaking, you don’t allow a lot of photography, because even though one person’s flash isn’t doing a lot of damage, a million people’s flashes are going to fade textile paper. A lot of delicate materials will be faded by ultraviolet light. So you simply can’t have several hundred-thousand or several million people over time taking flash photographs of an object.

About the BBC Dalek… just some background on why they were protective. When it was brought out here, it was brought out here for the Royal Easter Show. They also had Doctor Who showbags… but then at the end it cost too much money to send the Dalek back! So they kept the Dalek. But then they wanted to use it, so they lent it to a video store in Manly. When they got it back, word came down that it was never to be lent out again because it nearly got destroyed.

When it came to us, the electronics weren’t working and they wanted our technical people to fix the electronics for it. But in fact, we also believe that in the Powerhouse collection, we now have the original ring modulator that was used to create the first Dalek voice. Because Tristram Carey, who did some of the early incidental music for Doctor Who, came out to Australia in the late seventies to do some set-up of electronic music instruments at the University of Melbourne. He then came back to Australia and decided to stay permanently. When he passed away, his collection – all the contents of his studio and everything – was donated to the Powerhouse. And among that we found a ring modulator, and the notes that were with it suggested that it was the one they originally used to make the first Dalek voices back in the Radiophonic Workshop!

You’ve also written some Star Wars books and some Doctor Who books – can you tell us about your books?

When we did the first Star Wars exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum (Star Wars: The Magic of Myth), we wanted to update the exhibition to add new material for Episode One and Episode Two, because they weren’t represented in the original exhibition, which was put together before the release of the prequels. And because we were adding this new material, that meant the labels and everything had to be written for it. Lucasfilm were really good to work with, actually, but one thing they were very protective about was the canonicity of everything that was written about Star Wars. So the labels and the text that I had to write for this additional material, to provide context to it in relation to the rest of the exhibition, they had to check that. And then their licensing person over there, who looks after all the written material, decided that he liked my writing style. So he got onto DK Books, who produced the Star Wars cutaways and visual encyclopaedias and that sort of thing, and said “look, if you’re looking for another writer, give this woman a try.” So I wrote all the Episode Three stuff for a reference book called Star Wars: Complete Locations.

Anyway, DK was obviously happy enough with my work, because when they were doing the first Doctor Who Visual Dictionary, they needed somebody take over from one of the authors who was sick and wasn’t able to take part in it. So they said, we know you’re a Doctor Who fan – would you like to do this additional work? And that’s how I got to do the original Visual Dictionary! I did several spreads, or double-page type things. To my own surprise, quite a bit of my original work has continued to filter through the different, more recent editions. And my name is still in the front somewhere, on the title page. It actually fascinates me how much of my original text from the first edition is still turning up in the most recent one. I’ll be interested to see when the next one comes out how much of it is still there! But it was just good fun working on it and it was interesting.

In some ways it was easier than doing the Star Wars books. In other ways it was harder, because the BBC actually allowed you to a certain extent to be a bit more creative than Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm wants everything to be inside what they’ve established in the canon. Whereas Doctor Who was both more restrictive in one sense – everything I said, I had to provide a source for, blah blah. But if I came up with something that they liked, even if it was my own interpretation from XYZ, then it was allowed to stay.

What about the inside the TARDIS features you had to do?

That was really weird. When you do these, you get the visual for the spread, that’s already designed. So you get a page and it’s got those pictures on it, and you’re supposed to come up with all the writing to make those features fit together. And sometimes I really wondered what on Earth they were thinking when they put together the selections of images that go on an individual page. So anyway, with this TARDIS one, the spread included this very lovely but very strange piece of artwork, which was something that they identified as being called the Time Sector. And this was supposed to be the basic structure of the TARDIS, which was something that had never been seen anywhere before. It was clearly something that they’d decided to make up for this book. But all I get is the artwork and then I’ve got to figure out how to explain it! So that was quite an interesting challenge. But it was good in one sense, because I really did have freedom to come up with explanations for what the shape meant and what the components of it were and how it related to the TARDIS. I’ll note, though, that it wasn’t used in any of the later ones. I suspect that the BBC might have decided that they weren’t happy with having that image imposed on the TARDIS. I don’t think it was something they’d completely signed off on.

Wasn’t there another one where you had to describe the Tenth Doctor’s shoes?

Oh yes! This was another one where, with some of the images, they put lines saying ”we want you to annotate something here”. This one was the anatomy of the Doctor. So all I get is the picture and the lines pointing to different parts of the Doctor and I’m supposed to come up with the annotations. But again, I wonder sometimes what the hell they were thinking when they drew these lines to different places. Because some of them, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense as to why they’d draw a line to point X. One of the ones they drew a line to in this was the shoes. What can you say about the Doctor’s sneakers!? We’re not going to say the Doctor has smelly feet! They’re not psychic paper sneakers or something, so what are you going to say about them? So in the end I wrote: “comfortable shoes for a quick escape and lots of running”. And this is what I found quite funny – with a later one of Capaldi’s Doctor, they showed his shoes, still with an annotation, but it said: “comfortable thick soled shoes suitable for running – useful when making a quick escape”. So they didn’t use exactly my original words but they kept the idea of making the shoes for a quick getaway! I just thought that was quite funny because I literally wrote the original as an off-the-cuff thing simply because I didn’t know what else to write, but it survived!

Moving back to the Powerhouse, you were the museum’s curator of space technology.  What was it like curating items knowing that they had left the Earth’s atmosphere and been out in space?

Not a lot of the items that I had, had actually left the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the items were either replicas or un-flown hardware examples. I would have killed for a lot of things that had left the Earth’s atmosphere! I didn’t always have that opportunity, but when you do have the opportunity to handle artefacts that have flown in space, it’s just very special. They don’t glow in the dark. They don’t have something that says on them “been in space”. But when you know they have, it just makes them that little bit more special to you, that they have been beyond the Earth and touched the infinite in a way that the Doctor himself does. I always liked working, when I could, with artefacts that had been space-flown.

And I believe you’re undertaking your own research into space archaeology at the moment?

Ah, no, what I actually am is more of a space historian. At the moment, I’m doing my PhD on the history of Australian space activities, which doesn’t necessarily touch on what you would formally call space archaeology, but it does delve into the political and scientific history of activities that Australia has been involved in in space and space-related areas. That’s what I’m doing my PhD on at the moment.

When you were working at the Powerhouse, was there ever an attempt at putting on a Doctor Who exhibit there?

There were a couple of different things. There was a point where we were trying to bring out the exhibit that was created in 2007-2008. We did actually look at trying to bring that out to Australia. The negotiations were moving along reasonably well, and then the BBC decided that they would do the new exhibition in Cardiff, and pulled all the licences from other people who had exhibit licences with the BBC, which included the people that we were dealing with at the time. So they were no longer able to tour their exhibition, because the BBC wanted to take all their props back to have them available for the development of the Cardiff exhibition. Similarly, there was some talk from the BBC about doing an exhibition in Australia for the 2013 anniversary. We sort of said to them, rather than 2013 let’s focus on 2015, being the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who here in Australia. So we were kind of trying to steer them towards doing that, but again for various reasons at the BBC, the whole thing fell apart so unfortunately it didn’t happen.

And now, well – I’m not there anymore and the current director would no more have a Doctor Who exhibition than slit her own throat! So I can assure you there will not be a Doctor Who exhibition anywhere in the near future.

Kerrie’s Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia in the General Division of the 2020 Australia Day honours list was given for her service to astronautical history as a curator:

  • Independent space historian, curator and writer (current)

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) Sydney

  • Curator, Space Technology, 1983-2014

International Academy of Astronautics

  • Co-Chair, History of Astronautics Committee (current)
  • Member, Space Museums and Science Centre Committee (current)
  • Member of the Academy, elected 2012.
  • Editor, several volumes of ‘History of Rocketry and Astronautics’ (proceedings of the Academy’s annual symposium on the history of astronautics), International Astronautical Federation
  • Member, Education and Outreach Committee (current)

Other service includes:

  • Lecturer, Department of Space Humanities, International Space University, since 2001
  • Member, National Space Society of Australia and Space Association of Australia (current)
  • Most recent exhibition – From the Outback to Outer Space: Woomera1955-1980, National Archives of Australia and State Library of South Australia, 2017.
  • Author, Australia in Space, 2017 and Space Australia, 1993.

Past awards and recognition also include:

  • Recipient, Sacknoff Award for Space History, 2015
  • Recipient, Australian Space Pioneer Award, National Space Society of Australia.
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