Inspiration behind James the Rat King and using State Library of Queensland Resources

'Rat trail' multimedia experience

During 1907, there was an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague at Garnett’s Grocery Store on James Street, New Farm during the January school holidays. During this outbreak, eleven school children contracted the bubonic plague from playing at the store, along with five others. Of the sixteen infected, six died.

During the investigation of this site, floorboards were lifted to find rat skeletons, seemingly the perfect place for a rat king to fester. The character James the Rat King was inspired by this story contained in the Report on Plague in Queensland 1900-1907 by Dr Burnett Ham.

This story came to light for Dr Nicola Hooper whilst researching for her Doctoral thesis on Zoonoses (animal diseases that cross-over to humans).

The tale of James the Rat King is a gothic fiction, almost too ghastly to be real, borne out of the factual events from 1907.  A ‘rat king’ is not only a product of German folklore but also a real phenomenon. The rat king is recognised as a bad omen, and not surprisingly a precursor to the plague.   A rat king is a collection of rats knotted together at the tail. James the Rat King’s tails are fused with Hawthorn berries, referencing the street name of the first case at Woolloongabba. This became the subject of an artwork produced by Dr Hooper several years ago.

The Report is housed in The John Oxley library and is also available to view digitally on https://archive.org/details/b28039099/page/n7/mode/2up It documents this dark chapter in our local history.

James the Rat King eXperience is a collaborative interactive work created by Dr Zeynep Akcay of Griffith Film School, and Dr Nicola Hooper and is being shown for the first time during Curiocity Brisbane 2021.

With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 the story became timelier. Akcay’s direction and animation skills, Hooper’s illustrations along with State Library of Queensland's archival photo collection have been developed into The James the Rat King eXperience. It is presented as an animated nursery rhyme/fairy tale film. It combines illustrations and many archival images from the library’s collection. The images and ultimately the film help to educate viewers, but also to visually see the comparisons in living with the plague in Brisbane in 1900 compared to today, living through a global pandemic. Although at the time the Plague caused widespread fear, panic and hasty health responses. From a positive perspective, we can see the State strategised health responses, improved hygiene and cleanliness, resulting in a total recovery for the city.

Report on the Plague in Queensland 1900-1907, Burnett Ham, Picture by Nicola Hooper

This QR code activated ‘Rat Trail’ multi-media experience starts at the Maritime Museum. The rat trail continues through Southbank and ends at the State Library with the screening of the animation on the large LCD screen.

The project runs until March 28 as part of the Curiocity program.

James the Rat King eXperience. Photograph by Nicola Hooper

James the Rat King eXperience trailer. Animation by Zeynep Akcay, Illustrations by Nicola Hooper

Still from the animated film, drawing of ‘James Dreversen’ combined with archival images of his home on Hawthorne St, Woolloongabba. Photo from State Library collection. Animation by Zeynep Akcay, Illustrations by Nicola Hooper

Still from the animated film, drawing of ‘ Rat Dogs’ combined with archival images of his home on Hawthorne St, Woolloongabba. Photo from State Library collection. Animation by Zeynep Akcay, Illustrations by Nicola Hooper

Curiocity Brisbane is running from 12-28 March 2021. The event is a celebration of art, science and tech which includes the World Science Festival Brisbane. Interactive installations and multimedia experiences like James the Rat King are appearing across the cultural precinct, including here at State Library.

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