Keeper of curiosities

An ear trumpet for listening to babies in utero, an umbilical clamp, and a due date calculator wheel.

An ear trumpet for listening to babies in utero, an umbilical clamp, and a due date calculator wheel.

An ear trumpet for listening to babies in utero, an umbilical clamp, and a due date calculator wheel.

Being a ‘curator’ comes with a special responsibility, one that assumes guardianship of the most important historical collections. A curator’s primary responsibility is clearly spelled out in the Latin origins of the word ‘curare’, which means ‘to take care’. The sensitivity needed by such inquisitive souls requires patience, imagination, and a deep desire to explore history, science and art across time. The Faculty of Medicine’s new curator of the Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History, Charla Strelan, fits the bill exactly.

“I’m a Brisbane girl who grew up in 1980s Sherwood, hooning around on bikes, climbing trees in the Arboretum and spending my pocket money on one- and two cent lollies,” Ms Strelan fondly recalls.

“I remember as a child my favourite things were to explore, to argue and to learn. A similar sense of exploration and wonder has stayed with me ever since. The universe amazes me with something new every day, be it the moons of Saturn or the patterns on a bug.

Since joining the Faculty in May, Ms Strelan has wasted no time exploring her newest collection.

“The museum has the most fantastic objects from the past 200 years: my job is to bring best practice to the collection. This means revamping the way we display, catalogue, organise, conserve and store objects, with the aim of creating a unique, world-class collection for both exhibitions and research,” Ms Strelan explains.

“Each individual object in the collection is inspiring. In addition to being beautiful and terrifying at once, they’re fragments of history that are nothing short of miraculous.

“The more I learn about Queensland’s medical history the more I’m driven to share the compassion and conviction of these incredible stories”.

Ms Strelan has learnt a lot from UQ, with the University always being a part of her life in one way or another.

“My dad was an associate professor, and because universities were among the first to access the internet, I spent a lot of time as a child in his office discovering the wonders of Netscape,” Ms Strelan recalls.

“I also studied at UQ myself, and around 10 years ago I had the privilege of working at the University’s Anthropology Museum. Now I’m back!

“There’s something unique about working in an educational institution. There’s always a sense of enthusiasm and discovery that seems to permeate the hallways. I really appreciate it, especially as a workplace.”

But, it’s not just the indoors that Ms Strelan loves to explore.

“When I left Uni, I spent 12 years working with Indigenous communities in the Central Desert. I was a naïve young white girl with an anthropology degree, there to write reports for mining companies and federal courts,” Ms Strelan recalls.

“The patience, acceptance and generosity extended to me by the communities I worked in was just phenomenal – the women especially showed me such kindness. Being on country and sharing people’s stories was an experience that changed my life forever”.

The year 2020 has also been a life-changing moment.

“It’s certainly been challenging; not being able to hug nearly broke me. I’ve found it helpful to focus on the things that I can be grateful for, like where we live for a start. We really are incredibly lucky”.

It’s clear that no matter how difficult things may appear, there is always joy to be found.

“The daily small and immersive moments of happiness give me the greatest joy,” Ms Strelan reveals.

“Birdwatching, playing music, breeze on my skin, old friends, a beautiful poem, artwork and my two beautiful children. The potential for joy is everywhere, and it’s fantastic when you find it.”

The Faculty’s medical museum is certainly bringing Ms Strelan much joy, and 2021 is shaping up to be a busy year.

“I’d like to begin some important conservation work, rolling out an innovative exhibitions program, and implementing plans for a brand-new, state-of-the-art catalogue,” Ms Strelan explains.

“I want the collection to start generating some interest and excitement in the Faculty! There is so much to be done and so much potential, it’s inspiring.”

The Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History houses one of Australia’s finest collections of medical instruments and memorabilia.

Our recently appointed Museum Curator and Advancement Director would love to welcome you to visit the newly refurbished Mayne Medical Building at Herston in 2021.

Please email if you’re interested in a small group tour. Bring a friend or colleague and reminisce about your favourite times in medicine!

If you’re interested in utilising your knowledge and interest in medicine and history as a volunteer to assist with museum operations and collection care, please contact

Lanterns in front of Mayne Medical Building

This story is featured in the Summer 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.