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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!

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