Changing Cairns: farewell to a gifted storyteller, and friend
Spend long enough being an MDO and you soon learn that the communities you work in are where you find some of your closest colleagues. In Cairns, where the MDO works in an independent office, this is doubly true, and many of these people also become friends. So, when someone you’ve worked with closely for more than a decade decides to leave, well… it makes a bit of an impact.
Many of you will know Suzanne Gibson at Cairns Historical Society and Museum. For the last year she’s been working as the curator, but her legacy is as the manager who oversaw the building and museum renovation. And for good reason. Driven and determined, she championed change in a volunteer organisation and led the creation of an award-winning museum that has transformed the way people see the value of museums in far north Queensland.
People and relationships have been front and centre to Suzanne’s work. She’s always quick to acknowledge the significant contribution that volunteers, other colleagues and communities can contribute to the organisations development. Her desire to create a safe and inclusive space to explore the region’s diverse stories has succeeded. Since opening in 2017, the temporary exhibition space has staged a variety of exhibitions that reflect her convictions and ethics. This includes strong advocacy for First Nations voices and stories in the museum through collaborative exhibitions like Percy Tresize (2021), Reef Productions (2021) and the Djabu Gilga Yigan Land Sea Sky (2018) exhibition with students from Yarrabah state school. Her interest in Cairns’ Chinese and PNG community is enduring, as is her commitment to using the Cairns Historical Society’s spectacular photographic collection whenever there is a chance.
To make any of this work possible, however, Cairns Historical Society and Museum has undergone significant change. And Ms Gibson has been a key player in that transformation.
Before the refurbishment – the journey to the new museum
I first met Suzanne when she started work at the Cairns Historical Society and Museum in 2009. That was before I became the FNQ MDO – yep, almost a lifetime ago. I was struck by her passion, humour and her ability to speak like a radio host – short, sharp and direct! I also saw a kindred spirit – a lover of history and stories, and someone who was on the right side of crazy too! What we needed, we mused, was place where we could do the type of museum work we wanted to. Not long after this, Suzanne took over as the volunteer manager of Cairns Museum. We would often discuss our ideas for projects, stories we wanted to tell and ponder where the money might come from to do them. When I became MDO in 2012, she’d lead the project and I’d gallop in and provide advice, support or become actively involved – depending on what was needed.
One of our first projects at Cairns Museum was Cairns 1942, an exhibition that explored a critical year in Cairns’ World War Two history. It was the first major change to displays at the museum and I remember Suzanne’s concern about the impact this would have on volunteers as she led the installation of the work.
Team Gibson and Wills followed up with the Where are you from? project, which focused on the types of characters who have migrated to Cairns over time. This small show ended up in the entry foyer windows of Cairns City Library. Daringly, we branched out to pay a local graphic designer and cajoled our partners into helping us install the exhibition. My enduring memory, however, is both of us gasping as we realised, halfway through the project, that we’d asked the wrong question. Another salutary experience, and one that taught us both the value of critical reflection without blame or acrimony.
Suzanne’s application for a sustainability grant from Cairns Regional Council in 2012 was the beginning of significant change. She engaged museum guru, Kylie Winkworth, to develop a collection significance assessment and prepare a strategic plan. Cairns Museum’s vision to present “Cairns as a Tropical City” emerged from this work, and led to Suzanne and I teaming up again to work on concept and interpretation plans for new exhibitions and test our ideas with stakeholders.
Armed with this information, and refusing to take no for an answer, Suzanne played a central role in convincing Cairns Regional Council to support the redevelopment of the School of Arts Building, and upgrade Cairns Historical Society and Museum. And from there the redevelopment project suddenly became real. How that unfolded for Suzanne is, of course, another story entirely – and one for her to tell.
I’ll miss her drive, curiosity, ethics, love of the absurd, and her enduring acceptance of my own shortcomings. I’ll take my cue from the rationale that guided the development of the Changing Cairns gallery in closing. New curators could consider including Suzanne Gibson as a character in that gallery: as a leader, a personality and as a force that initiated significant change.
Suzanne finishes at Cairns Historical Society and Museum this week to pursue a curatorial role with the National Museum of Australia.