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.