WHEN you read the words “museum director”, who do you see? Someone in a tweed jacket, perhaps, with leather patches? Someone grey of hair, and conservative of views?
Well, you should see Julie Baird.
She may be the keeper of a city’s stories, old ways and traditions, but as Baird strides across the road from Newcastle Museum, she looks as though she personifies the shock of the new.
Baird’s streaked hair matches her boots; both have tones of pink. She is wearing a denim jacket over a red-patterned dress. I can see on a lower leg one of her 15 tattoos. On her wedding ring finger is a bright green band. Baird looks like a psychedelic cowgirl. Or the lead singer of a punk rock band. Either would connect to parts of her past, as I’m to learn over lunch.
“I’ve never been afraid of looking how I wanted to,” Baird says, as she settles onto the chair at her local cafe, One Picket Fence.
“The pink hair’s actually a mistake…”
Baird has glaucoma. She’s had poor eyesight since she was a girl. In her late 40s, Baird had to contend with frightening news.
“A couple of years ago, I was given a diagnosis that I would completely lose my sight in five years,” she says.
Baird underwent surgery to save her sight, but she was told there was still a chance she would go blind. Before the operation, Baird dyed her hair purple, so that if she lost her sight, she would do so colourfully: “It came out the wrong colour! It came out pink! And I went, ‘Ooh, that suits me’.”
She loves how the look turns on its head the stereotype on how bosses should look – “The Minister for the Arts knows me as the one with pink hair” – and it is a celebration of who Julie Baird is.
It is that celebration of identity that Baird takes to work and helps her shape what she wants the Newcastle Museum to be.
“Our whole reason for being is to answer the question, “Who are we?,” she explains of the museum’s purpose. “We’re all about belonging, we’re all about identity.
“What we really need to say is, ‘We’re going to answer this really simple question’. We can do it in all different ways. But our whole purpose is as storytellers and providing access to the community to answer, ‘Who are we?’.”
JULIE Baird was born in March 1968, virtually with boots on. She grew up on a farm near Camden, outside of Sydney, as the middle child of three girls.
Baird describes her childhood as “an Australian rural experience, even though my father was an academic [a veterinary medicine professor at the University of Sydney]”.
“I was a weird kid,” she says, explaining how she would build cubby houses out of lantana and create cemeteries, burying dead animals she found around the property.
“I would create worlds a lot, I was a real fantasist.”
When she was nine, the family travelled for a year, going through The Netherlands, Britain and North America. It was, Baird says, “a huge year of awakening”.
She remembers journeying across the US in a Greyhound bus, observing all kinds of characters in the other seats. She saw great art in museums and bought postcards of her favourite paintings. She still has those postcards. And she distinctly recalls the thrill of seeing an ancient stone exhibit in the British Museum and the disappointment of being prohibited by a row of bollards from getting near it.
“All I wanted to do was to touch this stone and I wasn’t allowed to,” Baird smiles. “So I say the reason I got into museums is I just wanted to get behind bollards.
“But all this kind of stuff, for me as a storyteller and a memory-maker, just goes ‘whoosh’ and soaks into my head.”
Baird’s family moved back to Camden for a few years before returning to Canada for her father’s work. Julie was to stay in Canada until she was 29. As a teenager, she lived in a city called Guelph – “I convinced someone it was Romanian for ‘vomit’; it was Queen Victoria’s maiden name.”
She was mad about punk rock, but Guelph wasn’t exactly on the bands’ touring circuit – until young Julie made it so.
“If there wasn’t anything happening, then it was no one else’s fault but mine,” she explains. “I wanted to see that music, so I had to put it on. I never thought there was anything odd about that.
“The only way I could get bands to play Guelph was if I fed them, did their laundry, let them have a shower, and they could sleep at our house.”
Some of those boys sleeping on the family’s lounge room floor would become famous, such as the members of American band Fugazi and local punk heroes D.O.A.
“I knew everyone across North America who was playing in punk rock bands.”
At university, Baird enrolled in English and drama, with thoughts of being an actor. But after a couple of years, she realised it wasn’t what she wanted to be. She swapped courses and studied medieval history.
“I got to the point where I realised that really what I was into were stories, and the stories that were contrived and fictional I didn’t actually like, or they weren’t as wild as the real stories in history,” she says.
Julie Baird was busy. She had married while still studying, and by 23 was a mother to her first child, Angus, who is now 27.
Baird also volunteered at the city’s museum (“It had an awesome chamber pot collection!”). She found her home in the museum; she was a natural curator: “I realised the way I thought about things, the way I put stories together with objects and words was different. So I took it and ran with it.”
While completing her post-graduate work in museum studies, Baird and her husband Jon had their second child, Bridget (now 23). Their youngest, Owen (18), was born soon after the family moved to Australia in the late 1990s: “So pretty much every four years when my life was sorted, I’d get pregnant and have another baby.”
Baird’s first paid museum job was in an institution next to a prison near Guelph. She worked with high-security female inmates, auditing the museum’s collection, while wearing a duress alarm.
“One day I was carrying a box and set the duress alarm off. I didn’t know what had happened, but all the women who were with me, inmates, hit the ground, spread-eagled, and guards are pointing weapons at me. And I was, ‘What!?”,” she says. “But I learnt a lot.”
Returning to Australia, Baird and her family lived in Adelaide. She landed a job as a curator at the National Motor Museum and was heavily involved in its redevelopment. It was a good primer for the job in Newcastle, as she would help the museum move to its Honeysuckle location. Baird arrived here in 2002, with the plan to stay about five years. But she fell in love with the place.
“I guess my first impressions were that Newcastle had the most remarkable people,” she recalls. “That Newcastle had the most remarkable sense of community. It was like a family. People say it’s a big country town. No. It’s a family. So that means you can fight and stuff as well!”
Baird wants Novocastrians to find themselves, and to contribute their stories, to the museum. It is why her favourite exhibition she has curated is “Earthquake Then and Now”, which chronicled the disaster through the stories of people photographed in 1989 and the course of their lives since then.
So more than provide an answer to “Who are we?’, the museum can proclaim, through its exhibitions and its collection of about 12,500 items, that, “This is us!”
“We’re the place you belong. We’re the place you’re accepted. So many different kinds of people come here, and they’re all one of us. They’re all us.”
Baird believes the museum is more relevant than ever in a city that is undergoing massive change, physically and socially.
“My big line is, ‘How can you see change if you don’t know where you’ve been?’.
“I’m all about change, and change is awesome, but I don’t want Newcastle to lose that sense of self-reliance and creating in a way that might be different.”
Baird has embraced change in her own life. In March, her work title changed from manager to director, after Newcastle City Council reinstated the position. That change means a lot to Baird, not just for the acknowledgement of the museum’s role in the city, but for her own future.
Having recently turned 50, and experiencing “The international year of ‘Oh-my- God, what am I doing with my life?’”, Baird was considering packing it in, returning to Canada and becoming a “checkout chick”. For the divorced Baird, her heart was on the other side of the Pacific. On a visit to Canada last year, she ran into Jay, who had been a friend when they were teenagers.
“Yeah,” she says, “and we sort of randomly really fell for each other!”
They are getting married in Guelph next month. Jay proposed by buying the jade ring she is wearing as they walked through a market, and he slipped it on her wedding finger. Since tattoos tell part of her story, Baird is planning to get her 16th work of body art to celebrate.
With his fiancee in a job she loves, Jay is emigrating here at the end of the year.
As she helps Newcastle answer “Who are we?”, Julie Baird is working on the reply to the question we all ask ourselves: Who am I?
“I always think I’m pretty normal, and then people go, ‘No, Julie, you’re not normal!’,” she says. “I think I’m a fighter. I think I’m one of those true believer types. I am a museum person with strong views. I have an unusual way of thinking, which I turn to the benefit of others. I’m a nurturer, and, funnily enough, whenever my job changes, I change. So right now, I feel like a director.”
“What does that mean? Responsible?”
“Who would have thought a punk rock promoter would be responsible?”
“Have you ever tried to control an all-ages punk gig!?,” she laughs.
“You have to be SO responsible!”