Posted by: Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson


There are plenty of challenges in developing new exhibitions for the Cairns Museum.

It’s an amazing and wonderful task and we are all lucky to have the opportunity. But it is a project that also carries a sense of local responsibility and accountability. In telling the story of Cairns as a tropical city, we are very conscious of the many different versions of what really matters in the Cairns story. There are lots of perspectives on Cairns’ history and we can’t possibly capture them all.

Consequently we have endless debates and anxiety about what’s in and what’s out. About the stories we simply can’t fit or don’t have an object for or which fall outside our key themes and storylines. Or the important stories we can’t tell because there’s no relationship with a person or community to enable us to get the story right.

Then there’s the dilemma of the fantastic story and the underwhelming but very significant object. The real life tale of Dr Thomatis and Caravonica cotton is a case in point.

Dr David Thomatis came to Australia from Italy in 1875. He was a man with a scientific mind and an entrepreneurial spirit, who was soon lured to north by the potential of the tropics. He dreamed of European-style farming communities right across northern Australia, using its abundant water, sunshine and land.

In 1884 he took up 1000 acres near the Barron River in Cairns and began experimenting with silkworms, bananas, ginger, rice, cocoa, nutmeg, sugar and coffee. Around 1900 he tried cotton. In 1903 he bred a strain that he named Caravonica, after his home town in Italy. Caravonica cotton was robust and high yielding, and Dr Thomatis believed it could become the dominant cotton in the world and the economic driver for North Queensland.

He was almost right. For a time Caravonica did become a major cotton strain in colonial India, Africa and Latin America. But here, under the “White Australia” policies of 1901, the opportunity of Australia was reserved for the white man. Yet Dr Thomatis couldn’t get Europeans willing to grow cotton in the heat, humidity and isolation of the tropics. Defeated in his adopted country, in 1909 Dr Thomatis sold the rights to Caravonica and travelled the world helping other countries to grow his Australian strain of cotton.

Great story isn’t it? Did you know there was cotton grown in tropical Cairns?

The good news is that we have a really significant object to accompany this story. We have an actual cotton boll of Caravonica Cotton. The real thing. One of only two known samples in Australia, well provenanced and in good condition.

What’s the problem? Well maybe it’s me but …. how interesting is a boll of cotton to look at? What do you think?

Can a strong story carry an object that doesn’t have a lot of presence? Do we drop Dr Thomatis’ story in favour of one with a better looking or more intriguing object? What would you do?

What did we do? Well … come and visit the Cairns Museum in 2017 and find out!




Posted by: Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson


In 2013 our incredible collections team packed up the entire Cairns Museum. Every object on display and all those in the collection store. In all the team wrapped, boxed, labelled and shifted over 5000 individual items to our temporary premises, awaiting the renovation of the Cairns School of Arts and our new gallery spaces.

We’ve kept everything in boxes since then. We don’t have room to unpack and we will have to shift them all back into the School of Arts before too long, so the less we unpack; the less we will have to repack.

Consequently, in reviewing and selecting objects for new displays in the Cairns Museum, our curators have really been guided by the catalogue and our collective knowledge of the collection. We’ve opened plenty of boxes but not all of them. There simply isn’t the time to randomly rifle through every box in the hope of finding something special.

As a result, large parts of the collection have receded from memory as we narrow our focus to objects that are going into new Cairns Museum exhibitions and ignore the ones that are not. This is especially the case for smaller objects. They’re still packed in their moving boxes. We work amongst them every day but have no visual reminder to trigger a memory or an idea. They’re sleepers.

But over the last 12 months one person has been quietly looking through pretty much every box. Druce is a photographer who comes every week and sets up his amazing camera gear – lights, lenses, camera – and patiently takes a pic or two of every object he encounters. As a volunteer.

When Druce came on board, we were hoping he could take a consistent reference image for each object. We had imagined it as a pretty functional sort of task, not as a particularly creative project. What we hadn’t grasped was how skilled he was, and how carefully he could light an object to capture its colour, materials and detail. By the time the curatorial team caught up with his work he had photographed a couple of hundred objects.

Suddenly, on screen, there were our forgotten objects. The small items that didn’t fit the storylines, the space or the focus of our new exhibitions. Things like the collection of Rotary dolls, the endless kitchen stuff, the medals and lights and handbags. All captured so beautifully that we were immediately reminded of the potential of every object to arouse our curiosity, tell a story or recall a place or a time.

Big nod to Druce.

The curators have now grabbed quite a few “forgotten” objects that they discovered through Druce’s wonderful photographs. We’re also thinking of wallpapering the entire Cairns Museum entry with them, accession numbers and all. It’s another way of sharing the collection and celebrating a great piece of work by a talented photographer who chose to donate his expertise to the Cairns Museum.


A collection of 54 ‘International’ dolls’ belonging to the late Jean Merle Warren. The dolls were often used by Rotary/Inner Wheel at various functions. The dolls were purchased/obtained in the country of origin. Included is a South Vietnamese doll bought back for her by her brother William Roy Tutty who was in the R.A.A.F. The Museum Collection already includes Jean’s “Cairns Centenary” hostess gown.