50 Treasures Revisited

Submarine sculpture inspired by crocodile

24 june – 28 october 2023

Submarine sculpture inspired by crocodile

(Featured Image): The Investigator (maquette), 1994, by Anton Hasell

JCU Library is fortunate to have collections of unique and rare resources — including artworks — of regional and national significance, describing life in the tropics.

In 2020, James Cook University celebrated its 50th Anniversary. To highlight this milestone, 50 precious treasures were selected from the JCU Library Special Collections and presented in a multimedia exhibition, 50 Treasures — Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. Accompanying the exhibition were digital versions of each treasure designed to provide an enduring legacy and inspire future generations of researchers.

Handdrawn architectural sketches of FNQ home from Val Russell’s Sketchbooks.
Woodblocks used for relief printing

(L- R): Val Russell’s Sketchbooks, (1969 – 2000); The Movement for Responsible Coastal Development (MRCD) Archive, (1990 – 2016), Woodblocks used for relief printing, from the artist Ben Trupperbaumer. 

The genesis for the idea of the 50 Treasures exhibition emerged from Bronwyn McBurnie’s experience working in the JCU Library Special Collections for the past decade, where she had the opportunity to become familiar with the many treasures in the Library’s collections.

Bronwyn has stated, “One of the main reasons for creating the exhibition was our understanding that people continue to have a strong desire to see the real thing even when a digital version is available”. 

For 50 Treasures Revisited, the Cairns Museum team has selected 17 treasures which resonate with Far North Queensland and can be accommodated in the Museum’s small gallery spaces. It was a challenging process as there were so many wonderful items which speak to the history of the region. The final selection of treasures is diverse in format and topics. It includes a combination of physical and digital artefacts, among them — original manuscripts (including diaries), artworks, historical sketches, photo albums and three-dimensional objects.

Framed image of "The Armorial Ensigns of James Cook University of North Queensland"
Artwork by Mornington Island artist Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey

(L-R): The Armorial Ensigns of James Cook University of North Queensland, 1973, by Morris Juppenlatz and F.W. Robinson, with Artists and Scriveners of the College of Arms, London; Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey, Untitled, (n.d), Bark painting, Mornington Island.

This is a unique opportunity to explore the people, places and events that have shaped the tropical environment in which we live. We hope you enjoy this exhibition and are inspired to explore further by visiting the digital treasures and their stories at NQHeritage@JCU.

Photography by Michael Marzik (2020).

Learn more about 50 Treasure Revisited

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Growing up in the Tropics

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3 March – 17 June 2023

What are the most significant memories about growing up in the tropics? How do they differ from growing up in other places.

The Cairns Museum presents recollections of childhood through photographs, artefacts, drawings, and smells that characterise the uniqueness of tropical landscape and climate with its beauty and challenges.

Cyclone damage to Port Douglas, 1911.

We sourced the exhibited items from the in-house collection of the museum. It reflects our commitment to preserving the history and memories of the Far North Queensland for the future generations. 

Cairns Museum is all about the local community. It has been established for the community. The stories we tell are a legacy to ensure a better way of life for future generations” – Clive Skarott, President of Cairns Historical Society and Museum.

Machans Beach School Children with School bus before Machans Beach school built, c1949. Donor: Jack Walsh

The exhibition was put together by the museum’s staff and volunteers. It brings together four categories of children’s lives — playing, learning, getting around, and resilience — salient themes showcasing items from our tropical museum collection. We invite you to reflect on your own childhood and connect with the past.

Two vintage cars, Black Downs homestaead, 1925. Donor: Clive Skarott

I remember my childhood as one great adventure, exploring the swamps and bushland close to the city” – Alan Hudson, 2010, Saturday June 26, The Weekend Post.

I went to Gordonvale State Rural School … we walked three miles to school into Gordonvale and three miles home every day. Girls learnt to cook and sew and the boys learnt carpentry, woodwork and leatherwork” – Ethel Galletta, 1999: 85, No Place for Snapdragons. Memories of Cairns.

 Children in their boat off the Cairns Esplanade, S A Doblo, 1928. Donor: Wilson/Beddoe Family

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Beach Couture: A Haute Mess​

Beach Couture A Haute Mess

18 November 2022 – 25 February 2023

Beach Couture A Haute Mess

Photos by Stephen Wong

We don’t know what will remain of us centuries from now but one thing is certain: there will be plastic, lots of plastic.


Plastic pollution has become ubiquitous in our oceans and on our shores. Marina DeBris’ Beach Couture: A Haute Mess, is a collection of wearable pieces made from trash collected from the beaches and oceans. It makes visible, in grotesquely amusing fashion, what is often overlooked – but shouldn’t be. Ideally, viewers will be provoked to take some action in their everyday use of plastic items.


“With my work I encourage the viewer to question the use of single use items, and consider ways to reduce waste so it does not end up in our oceans and landfills.”

Inconvenience Store

Photo of the Inconvenience Store above was in Batlow, New South Wales 2022 as part of the Sculpture by the Sea Snowy Valley Art Trail.

Beach Couture: A Haute Mess is a touring exhibition by Marina DeBris, American-born, Sydney-based artivist. Marina began collecting trash during her daily runs on Venice Beach, Los Angeles more than a decade ago, simply in an effort to maintain its beauty. Fuelled by her growing concern for the ocean’s health, she began to turn the trash into art in hope of drawing attention to the alarming developments she was seeing on the beach.


Marina’s works have been exhibited in the US, Japan and Australia. The Cairns Museum are delighted to welcome Marina and Beach Couture to Cairns for the first time, particularly with our strong attachment to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef here in the Tropical North.


The exhibition invites the viewers to engage with the idea of plasticity of the future. What can we do about the plastic pollution? How do we imagine the future? These ideas are presented at the exhibition and will be discussed at public events. We also ask you to express your ideas about how to imagine the future in a positive outlook. Your ideas will be featured on our social media platforms and in the temporary gallery itself as part of the greater discussion prompted by Marina DeBris’ Beach Couture: A Haute Mess.

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1 X 4

Museums use objects to tell stories – but which story and from whose perspective?

1 x 4 was an exhibition first developed by Newcastle Museum back in 2020. We were drawn to it as a creative and open premise for diving into the Cairns Historical Society and the Cairns Museum collection. We saw the premise as a chance to draw on the strengths of the collection as a whole, including material culture, archival and photographic items.

Objects in any collection are acquired for many reasons but the best of them bring with them strong and relevant stories that reveal something of the place we aim to represent. Yet the same objects are usually interpreted in exhibitions on the basis of the one story that fits a broader exhibition theme.

As curators, we start with an idea, then delve into our collections thematically, seeking objects that speak to key themes. When we start with the collection, we are usually drawn to the links between objects that tell a story or demonstrate a theme.

1 x 4 turns the idea on its head.

It features unrelated objects from the Cairns Historical Society collection – objects, photographs and documents – and explores the multiple stories associated with each. In doing so, it puts the exhibition visitor in the curator’s seat. Which story is the most significant? Which reveals the most about this part of far north Queensland? Which do you, the visitor, find most engaging?

The revealing of the curatorial ‘hand’ is further developed in the exhibition concept by the use of in-gallery QR codes, linked to some of the best source material identified during our object research. Not everyone wants to take a deep dive but the codes provide an elegant solution for those that do.

For a Historical Society and Museum with a large legacy collection, most of which has been little researched, 1 x 4  was a perfect platform to drive significance training and exploration. Both myself as curator and the team of curatorial volunteers were able to find objects we were interested in and begin digging.

It has been a rewarding and deeply engaging project. Once again the incredible skills of our staff and volunteer base was revealed. Our Chinese and Japanese speaking team members helped solve the riddle of a WW II ‘Yosegaki Hinomaru’ – good luck flag – that we may now be able to reunite with the family of a fallen soldier.  Our ex-planner was able to decipher the purpose of an unusual survey plan in the collection, while our Collections Manager Dr Sandy Robb was able to interpret a Chinese Deity statue that had sat on the shelves for far too long.

For me, chasing the engraver of an exquisite carved teapot has been revealing and challenging. That we have captured fragments of this man’s life, just before he vanished from living memory, reminds me of the value of material culture.  As long as his work is in our collection, his revealing life story won’t be forgotten.

Big thanks to Newcastle Museum for their willingness to share their concept with us. When I contacted them to ask if they would mind, their answer was ‘go for it‘! The best of our sector.

Cairns Over Time

cairns over time

Here you will find the story of Cairns told through the lives of locals, including Cairns Traditional Owners.

It’s the tales of our city – the good, the bad and the downright troppo.

Old Cairns

Old cairns

Swamps, sweat and sugar. How a port town was imposed on a steamy tropical landscape and the industries that made it prosper.

Living in the Tropics

gallery 3: Living in the TRopics

Hang out with the locals – including the unwelcome ones! A playful look at what makes life different in the tropical climate.

Changing Cairns

Changing Cairns

The transformation of a small tropical port to an international tourist city.

How travellers have found their way here and how locals have changed their town.

School of Arts

School Of Arts

Step back into a recreation of the 1907 School of Arts, with its curious collections and photo tables for exploration.