Blog Archives

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.

Unique eggs and lizard chutes

Since heading out from Goondiwindi on Wednesday morning, the on-the-road MDOs have headed further west into cotton country, with the first stop Thallon. This little community boasts a supersized art presence, with the grain silos dominating the horizon painted with dazzling murals. William the northern hairy nosed wombat was also popular with one MDO in particular, although she’s still looking out for the real thing…

Brute appreciating the art in the afternoon
Wombats also appreciate a hug on a cold day

From Thallon we spent the night in St George, a relaxed town along the mighty Balonne River. The river is running especially high at the moment but as we discovered, that was nothing compared to floods the town has suffered through in earlier years.

The flood marker along the Balonne.

After a catch up with the friendly team at the Visitor Information Centre and finding out a bit more about some of the cotton growing that powers this region, we wandered to a St George icon – The Unique Egg. Run by Stavros (Steve) Margaritus and his daughter, The Unique Egg displays Stavros’ incredible emu egg carving skills, which he picked up after moving to St George from Greece in the 1950s. Now in his late 80s we enjoyed meeting the artist himself.

A personal favourite – turns out the emu came before the egg

From St George we headed west to Cunnamulla in the Paroo Shire, home to Slim Dusty’s Cunnamulla Fella. Ewen has perfected the layering technique required to stay warm despite the sunshine, sporting the combo of beanie plus sunglasses to fulfill both warmth and glare requirements.

Warm and sunsafe

On our way to Cunnamulla we stopped in the small community of Bollon, where we very unexpectedly had French crepes and eclairs for lunch, made by two French chefs living in the town! We also were able to visit the Bollon Heritage Centre and discover a bit more about this beautiful part of the world, in particular the importance of bush nurses to these rural communities.

Fundraising wheel for the Bollon Bush Nursing Association

We also marvelled at the increasingly spectacular landscape, including some picture postcard-level stock mustering happening along the highway!

Stock mustering along the highway – lots of water around at the moment

Once in Cunnamulla we headed to the Cunnamulla Fella Visitor Information Centre, where we met the lovely Carmel who showed us the features of their facility. The VIC also includes the town’s museum, which was a brilliant mix of thematic displays, local stories and audiovisual experiences. We loved some of the moving and quirky stories behind the collections, including the town band who came out and played at the railway station for every returning serviceperson in World War Two, and the stories of the local boxing gym and legendary coach Bill Johnstone, complete with miniature boxing ring. The museum also included an audiovisual experience exploring the artesian basin and opal mining, with associated audiovisual experiences looking at shearing and wool, and the largest cattle station in Australia – Tinnenburra. The collection of king plates from local First Nations leaders were also special to see.

Checking out the AVs in the ‘Artesian Time Tunnel’
Boxing Club display

Of particular interest was the original starting gate for the Cunnamulla & Eulo Festival of Opals Lizard Race, complete with winner’s sash and medal. We will return to lizard racing once we get to Eulo as Elspeth may have discovered a new curatorial passion…

We had a really great meeting with the Paroo Shire Council team, looking at ways the MDO programme might be able to assist with new heritage developments and with managing this amazing Cunnamulla collection. From there it was time for a wander around the centre of town, a couple of Cunnamulla Fella photos, and a camel burger for the road.

Saying Cunnamulla Fella this often has really been a test of Elspeth’s Kiwi accent

Next stop Eulo and on to Thargomindah – tune in next time for more giant animal sculptures, reptilian tales and why the tagline for Thargo is London, Paris, Thargomindah…

Brute is THRILLED

150ZK: Truth Telling and the Coming of the Light

Two new exhibitions at Gab Titui Cultural Centre, THURSDAY ISLAND

Nancy Kiwat’s artwork ‘Papa Dabad’, 2016.

On June 17, Gab Titui Cultural Centre opened two new exhibitions to commemorate 150 Years of Coming of the Light. One explores the history and impact of Christianity on the community through an historic timeline. In the other, artists from three Torres Strait Art Centres have created works that represent truth telling: their understanding and response to this particular topic.

EXHIBITION PLANNING

MDOs Jo Wills and Ewen Mcphee worked with staff in March and then again in June to ensure the project was ready for opening. Exhibition training workshops in March included research, object analysis, interpretation and conservation, and ensured that new staff understood and contributed to the exhibition development process. There are multiple perspectives within the TSI community about what ‘Coming of the Light’ has meant, and continues to mean. By using the topic as the basis for the workshop, we were able to deliver applied training and help shape an exhibition plan.

Prior to the MDO workshops, lead curator, Leitha Assan, had already run engagement workshops with the three participating art centre communities (Erub Ewer Meta – Erub Arts; Moa Arts – Ngalmun Lagau Minaral Torres Strait Islander Corporation; Badu Art Centre | Torres Strait Islander Art from Badu Island). Her challenge was to bring all the components together and curate displays that creatively honored diverse viewpoints. Not an easy task, or in such a compressed time frame.

Between March and June, Gab Titui staff were busy with research, planning, community engagement, and content preparation. This included liaising with AIATIS, travelling to the islands to record interviews and collect items from the community for the displays. Staff also had to coordinate the transportation of artworks and production and printing of all material (labels, text panels, decals) back to Thursday Island – no mean feat when you’re living a remote community! MDOs assisted with ongoing advice and purchasing of materials and equipment.

Hands on installation training

When Ewen and Jo returned in June to assist with the installation, they were joined by freelance photographer and exhibition designer, Michael Marzik. Leitha was also keen for artists Jimmy K Thaiday (Erub), Fiona Mosby and Paula Savage (Moa) and Matilda Nona (Badu) to get some exhibition installation experience. With two large projects to install, it was all hands on deck, and wonderful to have additional people working across the two galleries.

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Each artist bought their own skills, understanding of materials and expertise to the process, and oversaw the installation of their own works, their colleagues’ works as well as other exhibition components. It was all hands on deck for the installation of decal signage, mannequin dressing and one of the large charcoal pieces from Erub Island.

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Opening night at Gab Titui

Exhibition openings at Gab Titui are a special, community event. This year was the first opening for a few years, and people from around the region, and state, were in attendance. This included QM’s Head of Cultures and Histories, Christopher Salter. Openings comprise a curated outdoor program of prayer, speaches, dance and song. After that, the galleries are opened to the community. This year, the Saibai Island Dancers performed took the stage, accompanied by a choir.

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Reopening Atherton Chinatown

After four months of closure due to COVID 19, the National Trust of Queensland (NTQ) have been preparing to reopen the Hou Wang Temple and museum displays in the Tableland Regional Council’s Old Post Office Gallery in Atherton. Like other cultural venues across the state, reopening is not as simple as just unlocking the doors and welcoming visitors. Facilities need to be prepared in line with strict regulations and COVID plans, and thoroughly cleaned. An opening date is planned for early August.

For Atherton Chinatown, this has meant addressing the effects of an extended period of rain which had caused mould issues in the gallery and the collection area. To help out, MDOs Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills spent four days helping NTQ workers and volunteers undertake a ‘deep clean’ and refresh of the site. In the process we learnt more about the collection, the temple and Chinese history. We also got to know some of the amazing volunteers who proudly share Atherton Chinatown’s history with visitors throughout the year.

Preparing the Gallery

NTQ representative and archaeologist, Gordon Grimwade, photographed each display section as a reference point for re installation. We then dismantled each display, making sure to link the case, perspex cover and contents by a temporary number. Objects were placed on calico lined trestle tables in their display groupings to avoid any confusion. They were checked for mould or other problems and cleaned with either a dry cloth, a solution of vinegar and water, or lightly vacuumed using a micro attachment. Volunteers removed and cleaned all of the large timber backed images that were mounted on the display (back and front) and the free standing interpretation panels. Ewen and I removed some multimedia items that were no longer working, and cleaned and relined drawers in the display that contained collection items. The empty gallery was then cleaned by professional cleaners.

The installation process involved Ewen rehanging all of the agricultural instruments making sure they were at once secure and accessible. Jo reset each of the display cases and, because of the poor condition of the labels, created new foam core labels for all items (thanks to Tablelands Regional Gallery and Council staff for their help with materials). We also sought opportunities to make the extraordinary portraits in the gallery more accessible for visitors by removing obstacles and creating a clear line of sight. The result is a gallery that looks refreshed and reinvigorated, and that is easy to manage for the volunteers into the future.

Refreshing the Temple

Volunteers cleaning the temple fence.

Atherton’s Hou Wang Temple is an extraordinary and beautiful building made from black bean, red cedar and tin. It is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register and is the only surviving timber and iron temple in Queensland One of the volunteers, Graham, has been taking visitors through it for the past 17 years, and it was a pleasure to listen to him share his knowledge of the history and of Chinese symbolism.

Despite its charms, the temple does present ongoing maintenance challenges, particularly regarding mould and pest control. Gordon, along with volunteers Neil and Graham, spent considerable time cleaning mould and residue from the fence. Ewen worked to bring the interior of the temple back to life – mostly with vacuuming and cleaning the floors. In an attempt to reduce vermin access, he and Graham placed steel wool in gaps that were identified – this will hopefully reduce the damage and mess within the temple this while pest control solutions are explored.

A new collection room

The project also gave Gordon and the volunteers a chance to plan how their collection room, located in one of the back rooms of the post office, would operate. Lucy and Terry spent two days painting boards for the new shelving system. The room will be a dedicated collection space for storage, cataloguing and other collection management activities. Items that had to be moved temporarily into the temple meeting room can now be stored more appropriately.

Our thanks and appreciation for the help and good humour to all the volunteers, and to Gordon and Christine Grimwade who coordinated the weeks work.

Pause, reflect, learn: FNQ MDO at the SLQ Heritage Leaders Workshop

To be honest I thought I was ‘done’ with First World War projects. But when I was asked to speak about the Anzac Treasures Program at the Heritage Leaders Workshop at State Library Queensland I felt it was recognition for the communities involved and the variety of other projects that happened along the way.

With only ten minutes to talk, there was no time to be expansive. So I chose to focus on the benefits of collaboration and the types of outcomes that emerged or which were connected to the project in some way:

  • collection items that were uncovered or discovered
  • projects that groups undertook either simultaneously or afterwards
  • follow up Anzac Trails projects by Cairns, Tablelands and Mareeba Shire Councils that utilised the graphic identity we created for the exhibition
  • the delivery of the Railways 1914-1918 temporary travelling and production of the Railway Ready: War Ready exhibition that went on display in the Atherton Post Office Gallery a few years later.

It is always good to speak, but sometimes it is even better to listen. And in doing so, I found that I wasn’t quite ‘done’ with the topic after all. I heard representatives from Cherbourg discuss their app and how students are using it, the story of researching nurses in Central Queensland and the importance of remembering and honoring Indigenous soldiers who fought in the war.

I was fascinated, too, to hear about some of the work undertaken internationally. The key note presentation by Jennifer Waldman, Director at the 14-18 Now program in the UK, highlighted innovation, creativity and participation. This program was driven by artist interpretation, clever marketing and, most critically, a very strong sense of identity and audience definition. While the scale of this sort of project is much bigger than some of the things we do in FNQ, there are still some critical take home messages. Planning for, understanding and identifying audiences is such an important part of what we do when we create programs. A great refresher for us all, I think, as we go about our work in the industry after this commemorative odyssey.

Below are some links to a couple of the 14-18 Now projects – I recommend you have a quick look as they were thought provoking and bold. Behind the works there is of course was a plethora of research and details that come from organisations like many of our museums and collecting groups who continue to preserve these stories:†

We’re here because we’re here: a poignant commemoration
of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme
Dazzle Ships
Recoloured/edited film footage by Sir Peter Jackson
Letter from an unknown soldier

‘Dressed to Impress’: Cairns’ museums collaborate to showcase fabulous frocks from the far north

What do you get when you bring together a wedding gown, a ‘fashions on the field’ racing dress, a kaftan, a Chinese silk skirt panel, a debutante gown and a fancy dress costume on International Women’s Day? A window into the lives and creativity of local women from the far north, and a chance to explore their stories!

Following on from the textile training run by Dr Michael Marendy in Cairns last year, museums in the Cairns region have recently celebrated the opening of ‘Dressed to Impress’ at Cairns Museum,  a collaborative exhibition that explored the wearers and makers of  some of the region’s textile treasures. This is the first time the groups have worked in this way and, if the level of participation and the attendance at the opening are anything to go by, it won’t be the last!

Each organisation was asked to choose one garment for inclusion in the show, to undertake research into the history and provenance, and to consider how they want it to be displayed.  Volunteers have contributed considerable time and work to prepare the displays. By combining their own sewing skills with the training from the workshops, they have adapted petticoats to fit the fuller dresses, made textile mounts, designed a full length slip to go under the wedding dress, padded mannequins and created supports for hats. 

Mulgrave Settler’s Museum shortlisted two pieces – and each was so strong we ended up including both. Volunteers contacted both dress donors and arranged for me to meet with them in Gordonvale so that we could find out more.  Owner of the wedding dress, Marlene Moss reminisced about her mother-in-law, renowned local seamstress, Kath Moss. We perused the photographic album that was part of the collection and looked at Kath’s notebooks that held the measurements of women from across the region.

Marlene Moss on her wedding day; one of Kath Moss’ measurement notebooks; the dress on display after hours of preparation.

Carol Lavelle, former owner and wearer of the Cairns Post costume, took the dress to the nursing home to show her mother who had made it in 1956.  Although her mother’s memory is fading, seeing the dress briefly stirred some recognition, a treasured moment for Carol and her family. For me, this illustrates the power of objects and the important role museums can play in reminiscence programs and community well being.  

Carol Lavelle: in the newspaper dress in 1956; with her mum, Callie at the nursing home (Image: Jenny Verrall); at the exhibition opening (Image: Travis Teske).

Babinda contributed a dress worn by Joan Dickson, winner of the inaugural harvest queen competition in 1963. Behind this fairy tale dress, lies the story of a woman who grew up on a cane farm, trained to be a school teacher in Brisbane, made her own clothes and whose knowledge of the sugar industry was critical to her being selected the winner of the competition. Joan was part of a contingent of 14 from Babinda who traveled up to the opening by bus, turning heads when she entered with 2018 Harvest Queen, Demi Bettini.

Harvest Queen Dress installation transformation: backroom preparations (Image: Suzanne Gibson); being installed by volunteers Glenys and Jenni; two Harvest Queens at the opening – Demi Bettini (2018) and Joan Dickson (1962) (Image: Travis Teske).

 

The contribution from CADCAI, via member, Jenni Campbell, showcased a different era of clothing, and a vastly different style. Jenni’s family had kept a chest of garments belonging to her grandmother who moved to Cairns in 1906. The clothing inside is made from exquisite and ornate textiles, most likely imported from China and sewn here. The fragility of the items caused us to be cautious about which pieces to display. Jenni worked meticulously to craft her story and then attach the fabric to the textile support, a technique that Michael Marendy had demonstrated during the workshop.

The kaftan that Celeste Augur donated to Cairns Museum added a pop of colour and vibrancy to the display.  She bought it off the rack from a local retailer and wore it to a Fun in the Sun party during the 1970s. Free flowing and light, it is an example of the changing fashion ‘loosening up’ – rather essential during Cairns’ warmer months!

Cairns designer, Grace Lillian Lee, also loaned a piece for the show, providing a contemporary example of tropical inspired textile ingenuity. Her Great Barrier Reef dress mixed hand printed textiles with metal spikes suggestive of the crown of thorns, and was paired with a woven coral hat that drew on traditional Torres Strait weaving techniques. Grace’s work is now recognised nationally, and she is now working on projects that seek to create opportunities to develop indigenous voices in the textile and fashion industries.

 

 

 

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Works in progress … new in FNQ

For the last few months I’ve been working on a number of projects that represent the regions diverse geography, history and communities. Rather than present a series of finished stories, this time I thought I’d showcase work that is underway. For each of the projects, the groups or organisations are undertaking something they’ve not attempted previously. None of them would be possible without the energy and enthusiasm of the various volunteers and community advocates – it’s the lifeblood of our industry.

A museum for Babinda
When Babinda Mill closed down in 2011, many people thought this small town would struggle to survive. They were sorely mistaken. In August last year, I was approached to provide Babinda Taskforce with advice about how to set up a museum. Motivated by the redeveloped Cairns Museum, and a desire to stimulate tourism and preserve history, this group aimed to set up displays in one of the shops on the town’s main street. But we had to start from scratch.

After running some introductory training, I then developed a strategic plan to get the project underway. Meanwhile, the Taskforce sought support from interested locals and created a museum subcommittee which began identifying objects and stories they wished to include. Funding was received funding through local council to develop curatorial and design concepts. We began an Indigenous liaison process to make sure cultural issues are respected and considered during the projects development.  And, we have recently secured some of Queensland Museum’s recycled showcases to help realize the project. (Now all we have to do is get them up here!)

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Collage of images from Babinda, c.1919. Satchwell Family Collection.

As the curatorial and design work has been developing, the Taskforce has been applying for grants and funding to support the building and fit out work. Local builders have been approached to be involved in renovating the space. While it’s been busy, the energy and enthusiasm of those involved in this project is inspiring.  All of this is mixed in with a lot of good humour and local ingenuity – essential ingredients for a project like this!

Queensland Rail Movable Cultural Heritage & Normanton Railway Station Museum

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Normanton Railway Station is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.

Located on the edge of Normanton in the north west gulf country, the heritage listed Normanton Railway Station has a long and somewhat unusual history. Now one of the jewels in the town’s tourism crown, most visitors enjoy the small railway museum located at the station before boarding the historic Gulflander and heading out to Critters Camp or going onto Croydon.

The museum collection is eclectic – it reflects the region’s pastoral and social history as well as the story of rail.  Station’s Officer in Charge, Ken Fairbairn, has been keen to get assistance with the museum’s collection management for a number of years. Now, through the assistance of Queensland Rail, the MDO program is about to start a project that aims to provide cataloging and policy advice for Queensland Rails movable heritage collections, and that involves practical work and training at Normanton Railway Station Museum.

Developing a keeping place for Napranum
In September I traveled up to Napranum, Mapoon and Weipa with historian Geoff Wharton to get an insight into the cultural heritage of the Western Cape. The main purpose of our trip was to begin discussions about developing a keeping place at Napranum in conjunction with the Shire Council. Geoff, who has a long association with Weipa and Napranum, a thorough knowledge of the region’s culture and connections with relevant community representatives, was the perfect person with whom to travel to there for the first time.

Since my visit, Napranum Shire Council staff have visited a couple of different museums in the Cairns CBD with me to give them an understanding of the different types of infrastructure and displays that can be set up. We have also undertaken research into funding opportunities, and are investigating ways to integrate relevant training in community.

Whilst in Weipa, Geoff also took me to the Cape York Collection, held at the Hibberd Library where he works as honorary curator. What a treat! And, what an amazing collection of cultural, technical and scientific material that provides an insight into the region’s diversity and history.

“Dressed to Impress” – a collaborative exhibition for Cairns Museum
As noted in my previous post, Michael Marendy’s textile training in June inspired everyone and got us focused on fashion. Apart from groups having a better understanding of how to manage, store and display textiles , one of the outcomes from his visit will be a small textile display, due to go on display early 2019. Representatives of Cairns Museum, Cairns and District Chinese Association, Mulgrave Settlers Museum and Babinda Museum have come together to start discussing which items they want to include, undertake some research and create an interpretation approach.

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Mulgrave Settlers Museum holds a fantastic collection of local dress maker Kath Moss’s wedding dresses, and an associated photo album.

Since opening in 2017, Cairns Museum has been working tirelessly to produce a suite of exhibitions for their temporary gallery. This textile display, with a working title of “Dressed to Impress”, will be the first time the small museums of the Cairns region come together to produce a group show. Cairns Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, and I are also seeking to include works of some contemporary local designers including Grace Lillian Lee and Vivienne Francine to ensure there is some contrast between old and new. Stay tuned for more details.

Welcome to the new Cairns Museum

Cairns Museum – renewed and resplendent

For those of you haven’t heard, Cairns Museum and has reopened. And it is FABULOUS!

I’m not going to pepper this post with a hundred pictures (why not visit or check the website to see it in all it’s glory), but I can’t resist sharing just a few.

Cairns School of Arts building, built in 1907, has been refurbished and modernised. You can’t help but notice the refreshed façade that now graces the corners of Lake and Shield Streets. The new annex provides space for additional galleries and a significant collections storage room, while the veranda encourages visitors to gaze out over the town and enjoy the Coral Sea breeze. Researchers can now visit the Cairns Historical Society during the wet season without sweating, and enjoy contemporary research facilities!

Inside the museum you’ll find four permanent galleries and a temporary space filled with objects and stories about people and place and living in the tropics. Take the lift to the top floor and work your way down the stairs. Explore old and contemporary Cairns, or find out about the old School of Arts collection. Interactives and multimedia bring some of the displays to life. And the shop in the entrance foyer entices with clever merchandising inspired by the collection – perfect for tourists and locals alike.

That’s not all that’s new. During the redevelopment process, the historical society and museum rebranded and worked tirelessly to create a suite of add ons like education, websites, Facebook and a heritage walk. In a win for Cairns, there are now four paid jobs at the museum (some part time) – a major achievement for a town that previously had only one. New volunteers are welcome and there are a sea of new faces taking advantage of their well managed volunteer program.

I might be a little bit biased, of course… but it really is worth a visit to see how a labour of love (and sweat and tears) has evolved to become a contemporary, dynamic and thoughtful museum.  Congratulations to all at the Cairns Museum and Historical Society team – it’s great to see you open again!

What lies beneath… three objects that have helped us view the reef

The Marine Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Tourism Poster, Percy Trompf, 1933. National Library of Australia.

The Marine Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Tourism Poster, Percy Trompf, 1933. National Library of Australia.

People’s desire to see  beneath the surface of the sea has inspired a myriad of underwater viewing objects and inventions. From hollow reeds to Leonardo Da Vinci’s early diving apparatus, there has been a whole raft of weird and wonderful creations inspired by our fascination with coral and the reef.

I’ve been exploring the way people have viewed coral recreationally on the Great Barrier Reef and around Cairns as part of my research for Cairns Museum’s new exhibitions. Drawing on material culture and academic research, I’ve found we can make some interesting observations about north Queensland’s contribution to the evolution of coral viewing.

Early visitors to the reef used hand held viewing devises known as coralscopes, waterscopes or glass bottom floats. Made from aluminum and a clear Perspex or glass, these were either boxes or tubes that were held over the side of the boat and provided the user with a stable viewing lens.

“The exclusion of surface turbulence meant that the scene through a waterscope was sometimes in stark contrast to the surface of the water … The waterscope thus opened up, not only fear, but a delight in the other that constituted the underwater world.” (Celmara Pocock, (2003). Romancing the Reef: history, heritage and the hyper-real. PhD thesis, James Cook University, p. 231).

Queensland Museum holds one example in its collection (see below). Cairns Museum and the State Library of Queensland hold a range of photographs that illustrate people viewing coral over the side of the boat. Does anyone know of other examples in other collections around the state or country?

Glass bottom boats were another early form of coral viewing. In 1937, the Hayles family launched the worlds first glass bottom boat at Green Island. Accompanied by music, these boats were ‘allowed to drift over deep channels so that passengers can view the teeming waterlife through the glass in the bottom.'(Tourism Guide book) Adapted later in the 1940s, these vessels continue to be used on the reef today, providing access to the underwater world for those who prefer not to immerse themselves.

Local entrepreneurs Lloyd Grigg and Vince Vlassof, were involved in creating another underwater viewing first for the region. In 1954, they opened the Green Island Underwater Observatory, a 10m chamber with 22 port holes, situated at the end of the jetty. Bought for 400 pounds, it was converted from an underwater diving chamber used in WW2 to erect pylons, and taken out to the island and sunk into position.  A shop and residence were erected above it and coral formations bought in from other reefs to attract fish. The underwater observatory remains on the jetty but is no longer open to the public.

New innovations, like the Scubadoo – an underwater scooter – and more advanced diving equipment have revolutionised the way we interact with and view the reef. But these three objects provide special insight into the innovations the region has used to make the Great Barrier Reef’s underwater gardens more accessible to visitors and enthusiasts.

Stay tuned – there are many more fascinating stories being uncovered as the research for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment continues.

Scenic Rim Story Skills

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpetation and labels share the important stories. “[you need to read what is on the cassette]” image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpretation and labels share the important stories. Image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

In this age one of the challenges many community museums face is attracting new visitors. A wide range of activities such as sports, theme parks, shopping or community service all compete for potential visitors’ time and attention. Compounding this effect, people’s understanding of our collections and their meaning is diminishing. The items which were once commonplace in everyday life are now seen by many as unknown “things”, with little relevance to their understanding of the world.
And to be fair to the visitor, sometimes we don’t do the best job of helping them to understand what they are seeing and why (we think) it matters. Sometimes we simply leave them alone with these unknown, uninterpreted objects to try to make sense of what it all means. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when it becomes all too hard and they don’t bother to visit. With this situation at hand, the need to produce quality exhibitions with engaging stories to make sense of our collections has never been more important.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

With these challenges in mind, volunteers from Scenic Rim museums gathered recently at Rathdowney for an exhibition development and label production workshop. During the day, the groups explored the topics of exhibition components, concept development, structuring narrative, writing, and production methods. The afternoon saw a practical session, focusing on making simple yet professional foam core labels using a number of different techniques. After an enthusiastic afternoon brandishing Stanley knives, steel rulers and spray adhesive, the participants were well equipped with the background knowledge and skills needed to produce their own exhibition panels in-house. I can’t wait to see how they will use these skills to tell the fascinating stories from their region!

The Workshop was funded by the Scenic Rim Regional Council and Arts Queensland RADF Fund. The Regional Arts Development Fund is a Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and Scenic Rim Regional Council partnership to support local arts and culture. If you would like to host a similar workshop for your museum, please contact the Museum Development Officer for your region.