Earlier this week, I was contacted by Don Lawie, one of the volunteers at Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settlers Museum. His email contained a link to a newsletter he had recently prepared for the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Don drew my attention to the piece called “Beautiful Plants of the Tropics”, one that he had written following his visit to Cairns Museum for the opening of the latest temporary exhibition.
I first met Don in my capacity as MDO for FNQ and have always been aware of his knowledge and love of local history and the region, despite his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. But I didn’t know about Don’s interest in Australian plants, and his article’s closing sentence stopped me in my tracks:
“I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.”Don Lawie, 2019
Here in a single sentence, Don captures the value of museums: the joy that a single artefact can bring to a visitor, the wonder of ‘the real thing’, the importance of preserving collections, the significance of local collections and the value of sharing knowledge across the community. As a museum worker, this shows me the different ways people access and read the items on display, and it validates my interest in interpreting our environment as part of a region’s social history, and the importance of national history collections and herbariums.
Don’s email inspired me to go back into the museum and seek out the display, and to see what it is that captured his imagination. I also got online to find out more about the specimen, dendrobium fleckeri and found that its common name is the apricot cane orchid. I hope to work with Don and use his memories of Babinda’s orchidologist, and former Babinda Mill worker, Jack Wilkie as part of a larger story as we develop Babinda’s new museum. For now, however, I’m just going to share Don’s article (with permission), and the delight of his discovery.
Beautiful plants of the tropics: Dendrobium fleckeri
Don Lawie, 2019
The refurbished Cairns Museum is filled with treasures that recall the past of our part of the world. On a recent visit I was excited to find a treasure that made my heart beat faster and my tremors go into overdrive. There, on the first floor, in an unremarkable corner, was a dried and mounted specimen of a Dendrobium orchid. I found this fascinating since the expertly mounted specimen comprised the entire plant – leaves, rooted stem and inflorescences. I have long understood that such a mounted specimen is impractical due to the general features of a Dendrobium orchid. This specimen was collected on Mount Bartle Frere in 1947 and is still in good condition – good enough for an I.D.
Why does this specimen excite me? The collector was Babinda’s Jack Wilkie. Jack was an indefatigable explorer of the mountains and rivers in the vicinity of Babinda; he found and named a number of orchid species previously unknown to Australia , and several were named in his honour (unfortunately, they had been previously described overseas and so the original name had to supercede the wilkiei name).
I knew Mr Wilkie when I was a boy and he was a loco driver for Babinda Mill. He used to give my brother and me a ride in the steam loco cab when he went down the spur line to our farm at Fig Tree Creek, letting us toss coal into the roaring maw of the fire box. Many years later Pauline and I had the honour of being present when Orchidologist Bill Lavarack presented the Australian Orchid Foundation’s Award of Honour to Jack Wilkie in acknowledgement of his immense contribution to the orchid world. And not many years later I was proud to be able to scatter some home-grown orchid flowers on his grave.
Dendrobium fleckeri occurs mostly on the higher mountains such as Bartle Frere, Bellenden Ker and Mount Lewis at altitudes above 900 metres. It prefers to grow on exposed rocks and can flower at any time of the year. The plant is small – the stems about 30 centimetres long – and the flowers are also small. Common name is Apricot Orchid and it is not found in cultivation since it will only grow in the weather conditions of our highest mountains. So, I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MDO life in FNQ has again been busy over the last three months. I’ve travelled what feels like 1000s of kilometres and been privileged to see north Queensland’s diverse landscapes and intriguing cultural history. Great, too, has been the opportunity to work closely for the first time with communities in Burketown, Babinda and Millaa Millaa, and reconnect with colleagues and friends in Cairns’ museums and Torres Strait. Here are just a few details of projects I have been lucky enough to work on recently:
The Wild Irish Girl Display, Cooktown History Centre
I’ve always been impressed at the self sufficiency of the volunteers at the Cooktown History Centre. So when they asked me to help out with cataloguing training for the John Hay/Sam Elliot collection, which was donated to them just before John died, I was only too pleased to assist. As we worked our way through we discovered a fabulous collection of material from the Palmer River Goldfields. Handmade tools, Chinese pots, gold scales and opium pipes… these are just a few of the items that tell the story of the Wild Irish Girl Mine, a unique place in FNQ’s mining and social history. Follow this Wild Irish Girl Mine link for more information.
We also discussed displaying the material in the available space and how the group might set up the new area. Six months later, I received pictures of the new display. After purchasing some new cases and developing panels using their in-house style, the group have produced a fabulous display that mirrors and succeeds their intentions. Congratulations to a very dedicated group of people.
Burketown Visitor Centre CHG project
At the end of May, Ewen McPhee and I drove out to Burketown on the Albert River in far northwest Queensland to help out the local Shire Council and the Carpentaria Land Council with their collection as part of a CHG grant. Designed to help understand the collection and make it more accessible, the grant enabled us to spend a week with the group and help redevelop their displays and get them ready for opening. Along the way we got to spend time getting to know the community in more depth, learn about the Aboriginal and settler history, and become acquainted with the cultural artefacts and paintings that make up their collection. We made sure to enjoy the surrounding landscape and evening skies as well.
Cairns’ Museums Textile Training with Dr Michael Marendy
Museum volunteers in Cairns attended a week long textile preservation workshop in June, thanks to funding from Cairns Regional Council. Run with great care and passion by Dr Michael Marendy, participants were treated to his wealth of knowledge, attention to detail and ready humour as he ran applied training sessions. I was amazed at the sewing skills out there among the community, and painfully aware of my own needlework limitations! But Michael’s enthusiasm is infectious and, by the end of the week, I could see how beneficial site visits Mulgrave Settler Museum and CADCAI had been, and how inspiring it is to have access to a material specialist. Michael also delivered a delightful public lecture, leaving guests crying out for more stories from his experiences with textile treasures. The groups in Cairns are now working towards developing a small textile exhibition in Cairns Museum’s temporary gallery.
Gab Titui Cultural Centre: Butal Inu Ngapa Boey and the 2018 Art Awards
Ewen and I travelled up to Thursday Island in July to help the team at Gab Titui install two new exhibitions. The 2018 art awards were opened on Thursday 26 of July and we were honoured to work with a vast array of wonderful pieces. The new cultural exhibition, Butal Inu Ngapa Boey translates as ‘our luggers’ and examines the familial connections to the Torres Strait’s pearling history. Ewen has been advising on this project for the past year. Important to this project was the video recordings with different island representatives. The display also included commissioned artworks that celebrated the region’s pearling traditions and history. As usual, an exhibition opening at Gab Titui is accompanied by extraordinary dancing, this time from the Badu Island Dancers who performed lugger dances.
The Kjellberg Story: Millaa Millaa Museum’s first temporary exhibition
Last, but by no means least, Eacham Historical Society’s Millaa Millaa Museum developed and opened a new temporary exhibition to commemorate 100 years of noted Swedish migrant Ernst Kjellberg’s arrival in the district. Initially, Kjellberg worked closely with Mamu men to clear their land, and run a dairy farm. Then, between 1930 and the 1945 he and his family ran a health clinic on their property Beachview on the outskirts of Millaa Millaa. As knowledge of his abilities grew, people flocked to his clinic and lived in tents while they received holistic and manipulative therapy.
The production of this exhibition was no mean feat for this group of volunteers who live in this small town on the Atherton Tablelands. At least two of them are over 90 and many have been experiencing health complications. Nonetheless they were keen to participate and were gently guided by new volunteer curator, Stacee Hillyard who did a fantastic job. I was very fortunate to be able to enjoy their support and goodwill as I came in and made changes, and believe the process was as important as the outcome. Community enthusiasm for this story was strong, and became increasingly evident as we worked toward the opening. We had people offering to lend small collections of material. Volunteers partially reassembled the electric light bath for the display – perhaps one of the most unusual items I’ve come across for a while.
The exhibition was officially opened on July 28th by Councillor Anthony Ball. For a small town, it was a big event. Am amazing morning tea was provided by the CWA, and more than 50 people took part in what was the museums first temporary exhibition. Among the guests I even happened to meet a man who had worked with the light bath we had on display! Congratulations to the Millaa Millaa Museum group for their hard work and enthusiasm.
We might only be in March, but 2018 has already been busy up here in the Far North. Apart from attending a new exhibition opening in the temporary gallery at Cairns Museum, helping groups submit grant applications and planning for textile conservation workshops, here’s a quick overview of some of the FNQ MDO museum work since January:
Loudoun House Museum, Irvinebank
I visited Loudoun House Museum in Irvinebank in January and was overwhelmed by the work and changes instigated by the volunteers at the museum. They have done a fantastic job at implementing and adapting recommendations I made in an interpretation plan. The museum now has a dedicated John Moffat display in the original office and refreshed and exhibition spaces.
Plus, the group also found time to pull out some railway artefacts for the railway display in the Old Post Office Gallery in Atherton. Special mention, and farewell, to Ellen Barnes.
Railway Ready – War Ready and the Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition, Atherton
At the end of 2017, I started working with groups from the Atherton Tablelands to create a local component for the QM Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition. Apart from curating the project, I also stretched my graphic design skills to create text panels to accompany the photographs and objects.
Big thanks to Eacham Historical Society, Herberton Mining Museum, Loudoun House Museum, Mareeba Heritage Centre, Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre and Queensland Railways for helping with image, information and objects. The exhibition opened in February and has since moved onto Douglas Shire Council offices in Mossman.
Collection gold: Croydon Miner 1887
At the end of last year, a Cairns resident requested help finding a suitable repository for an early newspaper from the goldfields which he thought might be important. After some research we discovered just how special it was – a first edition copy of the Croydon Miner 1887 printed on silk. No other institution has a copy of this newspaper, so it’s quite a treasure and its research value and historical importance is exceptional. A quick glance at the advertisements and articles reveal a window into 1880s Croydon and its goldfields during its heyday.
As the item is fragile and needs conservation, I wanted to find a place with the capacity and resources to ensure its longevity. I also needed to heed the donor’s wish that the item be kept in north Queensland, so I approached James Cook University’s Special Collection Librarian, Bronwyn McBurnie. Needless to say, Bronwyn was delighted to work with the donor and the newspaper has now been acquired into JCU’s collection. It will be preserved in memory of the donor’s late son. We hope to work with Croydon Shire Council to recreate a copy of the item that can go on display in Croydon’s heritage buildings later in the year.
75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion exhibition
Finally, I’ve just come back from Thursday Island where, with Ewen McPhee and the team at Gab Titui, we installed two exhibitions to mark the 75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion. One was a travelling photographic exhibition called Indigenous Australians at War by the Shrine of Remembrance in Victoria. It includes remarkable and candid images and stories that are an important part of our military history.
The other exhibition was curated by Gab Titui’s Exhibitions and Public Programmes Manager, Leitha Assan, with help from Vanessa Seekee OAM, curator at the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island. Stories from the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, the only Indigenous battalion in the Australian Army, remind us that at the time of their enlistment, these men did not receive equal pay, were not able to vote, nor were they recognised as Australian citizens. Despite this, 873 men enlisted – 36 were killed or died on active service.
As MDOs we have been liaising with Leitha over the last few months regarding the preparation of exhibition content and materials and then travelled up to help them install and prepare the spaces. This continues the strong link between the MDO program and Gab Titui. We were privileged to attend the opening, which featured traditional dancing – the Aeroplane Dancers and Charlie Company Sarpeye Dancers – and attend the dawn service, the anniversary march along the main street and listen to the speeches.
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!
Railways 1914-1918 is the latest travelling exhibition from The Workshops Rail Museum, Queensland Museum Network. It explores the role of railways at home and on the front and the pivotal role of rail in moving Australia’s military. It has been adapted from the original exhibition and includes nine large pull up banners and a purpose built crate/show case for travelling and displaying replica artefacts and ephemera.
Plans to display it in regional Queensland began in March this year when south east Queensland MDO Josh Tarrant undertook to develop a travelling schedule. FNQ’s MDO Jo Wills was keen to give far north Queensland’s communities the opportunity to host a QM travelling exhibition and agreed to help out.
Last week, Josh and Jo travelled west to Normanton to install the exhibition in it’s first venue – the sensational heritage listed Burns Philp Building which was constructed in 1884. Now used as the Visitor Information Centre, Library and for community markets and events, it was the perfect place to kick off the tour. The MDOs used this western journey as an opportunity to catch up with communities in Georgetown and Croydon along the way. They also spent some time at the small museum at Normanton Railway Station, home to the iconic Gulflander.
It’s rather fitting that the Gulflander will contribute to the exhibition’s journey east. After being on display for a month, the exhibition will travel to Croydon on the Gulflander, thanks to the generous support from the Officer in Charge, Ken Fairbairn. It will then travel onto Georgetown by road. Etheridge Shire’s TerrEstrial Centre at Georgetown will host the exhibition in September. From there the exhibition heads east to the Mareeba Heritage Centre in October before heading down to Cairns Botanic Gardens Visitor Information Centre in November. After a short break over the Christmas period, it will be on display in Atherton’s Post Office Gallery in February before making one last journey to Port Douglas in March.
Yesterday, Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale opened a new exhibition called ‘Beetles, Grubs and other Bugs’. Developed to commemorate the 100th year of sugar research at nearby Meringa Research Station (part of the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations) and highlight the importance of cane to the region’s identity, it featured the work of the station’s entomologists as they battled to help cane farmers overcome pests and diseases in the early 20th century.
Central to the exhibition are the display cases created by Edmund Jarvis between 1922 and 1932. A science communicator pioneer, Jarvis created educational cases to help farmers better understand and manage issues affecting their crops. He crafted the displays using specimens, hand drawn diagrams, typed labels and early black and white images and held information days at the station.
You might recall an earlier post from May 2015 outlining details of the cases at the time I was approached by staff at Meringa seeking advice on preservation and storage. Since then I contacted the Mulgrave Settlers Museum about acquiring the cases – there is a strong link between Gordonvale and Meringa, with the first research station being located on Thumm Street just near the present day museum. Thanks to a Regional Arts Development Grant (RADF) from Cairns Regional Council, the cases have also undergone conservation treatment and made ready for this new exhibition. Thanks to conservator Sue Valis at MTQ for her meticulous cleaning and attention to detail.
The RADF grant allowed the museum to purchase a large format scanner to digitise hundreds of images and glass plate negatives that were also part of the donation. These images also feature in the new exhibition, as do a number of other significant artefacts including a lantern used in breeding programs, injectors and sugar refractors (which help to measure sugar content in cane) as well as a microscope belonging to James Buzzacott (on loan from the Australian Industry Sugar Museum in Mourilyan).
Council support also meant that the museum could work with the MDO to create a new exhibition, install a new hanging system, reline cases and rearrange the displays to showcase the research they had undertaken into the cases and the work of Meringa. An exhibition development workshop was held early in the year to set out the parameters. Lead by Travis Teske, the volunteers collaborated with Meringa Station staff and each other to pull the project together. One built timber easels to display the cases, and all hands were on deck for the installation and rearrangement.
The exhibition is open for 6 months. The museum is located near the Mulgrave Mill at 60 Gordon Street, Gordonvale
Earlier this year I was contacted by a woman who was wondering whether a cloth that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother held any interest to the collecting organisations in far north Queensland. The description of the item reminded me at once of the autographed signature cloths that we have featured previously on this blog from Croydon and Cloncurry so I quickly asked for some details. She replied:
My Grandmother-in-law, Clementine Manning, gave me an Autograph Cloth. In the centre of the cloth it says: “KINGSBOROUGH AUTOGRAPH CLOTH – IN AID OF BELGIANS – OCTOBER 9th 1915” It is surrounded by appliqued signatures of the children at the school in 1915. One of them, Vincent Manning, is my husband’s great uncle.
To say I was interested was an understatement! What a treasure! And so the process of research and object analysis begins.
Of course, it was Germany’s invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 that prompted Britain to declare war on the Germans and, thus triggered Australia’s involvement. Historian Peter Stanely noted:
Reports of atrocities committed against Belgian civilians—actual, exaggerated and invented by British propaganda—flooded newspapers around the world.
Australians responded powerfully to reports of ‘poor little Belgium’. Its own soldiers saw almost no action until April 1915. In the meantime, many Australians devoted themselves to supporting war charities that were directing relief supplies and money to Belgian refugees in Britain and France. Until their own troops entered battle, Belgium became the focus of many Australian civilians’ patriotic fundraising…
I found specific postcards were generated to support this, particularly in Britain. I also found a number of collections with specific material about the Belgian Relief Fund, in the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of South Australian and the National Library of Australia.
But what of Kingsborough, and Queensland? In 1915, Kingsborough was a small mining town on the Hodgkinson goldfield in the hills behind Cairns and Port Douglas. Pugh’s Almanac reports it had a baker, blacksmith, butcher, aerated water manufacturer and two hotels – the Federal and the Kingsborough. Children were taught at Kingsborough State School No 359 by the teacher Ms Amelia Boyns.
It is through Amelia Boyns that we start to uncover more about the story and fundraising in the region. In January 15, The Telegraph reported that Amelia donated the proceeds of an autograph cloth (1 16 shillings) to the Belgian fund which were disposed of by the art union. It also notes she ran a guessing competition for a doll, raising 16 shillings and putting that towards wounded soldiers. In September 1915 the Cairns Post reports that she sold a boy’s hat for 1 eight shillings and six pence and put that towards the Belgian Fund as well.
I’d love to spend more time researching Amelia’s history. She appears to have been a motivated and passionate supporter of the war effort, and another example of the type of activities that women undertook on the home front. She left Kingsborough in 1916 and moved to Edge Hill in Cairns to teach. Unfortunately, however, that is as much time as I could sneak away from other projects and indulge in a bit of research. I can report, however, that the cloth will be donated to the Historical Society of Mareeba.
Like many museums across Queensland, James Cook Museum received funding from the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program. Designed to showcase the museum’s First World War collections, the grant also included time for Ewen and I to provide onsite advice, reconfigure the gallery space and install the exhibition.
When Kate Eastick took over the reins as the museums new curator, however, she decided to refocus the exhibition to tell stories from the home front and the local community, and identified a different space for the exhibition. This change responded, in part, to some of the stories and objects Kate uncovered during her research. An unexpected find, for example, was a hand crocheted square (pictured below). She was also keenly aware of Cooktown History Centre’s Behind the Lines Exhibition, which provides detailed biographies of Cooktown’s soldiers and their wartime experiences.
Cooktown’s War creates an additional narrative layer to Cooktown’s war stories and reveals the impact of the First World War on Cooktown residents. And by working with members of the History Centre, the exhibition demonstrates the benefits of two of Cooktown’s premier collecting organisations pooling resources and knowledge. Shared photos and research have meant that details about rifle clubs, and Chinese business owners and war loans have been placed on display. Difficulties surrounding Indigenous enlistment are explored through archives and portraits of Charles and Norman Baird, brothers who were among Queensland’s Indigenous soldiers from the region. Stories of Red Cross fundraising initiatives and women’s patriotic activities have been woven into the exhibition framework through evocative photographs (see below). Kate also included a contemporary story using a uniform and images from the 100 years commemorative march held in Cooktown this year.
Changes to the project meant that Ewen and I also had to make adjustments. The alternative gallery space meant Ewen had to install a new hanging system and different types of framing mounts and matts were required. By coincidence, Cooktown’s timber honour board, already on the display, is located outside the gallery. This, and a poster created to promote the exhibition, created a nice entry to the gallery. I had to remove some photos and posters from damaged frames for conservation and display purposes. I also made a range of different mounts and object supports, and generally extended my sewing skills! Of course, label making is always a feature for this type of project, but I can advise that the degree of difficulty definitely increases as the temperature and humidity rises!
MDOs have to be fairly versatile and responsive whilst in the field. As James Cook Museum had recently had a serious pest issue in its Indigenous display cabinets, we took time out from the exhibition to reline the cases with unbleached calico and then reinstall all the objects that had been treated prior to our arrival.
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.