If you wanted to choose a place where historical artefacts are most at risk of destruction, with the exception of conflict zones, you would have to consider North Queensland.
A dangerous mix of extreme weather, temperatures and moisture make it an archivist’s nightmare.
That is what makes the 50 rare objects currently on display, as part of an exhibition curated by James Cook University, all the more precious.
“High humidity, rainfall and then the fluctuation of everything — paper doesn’t like that at all,” curator Bronwyn McBurnie said.
Storing rare documents and artwork is a battle against nature itself.
“Apart from us not having good places to store things in, we have to deal with big cyclones and major weather events,” Ms McBurnie said.
“This is a reason that there really isn’t a lot of material that predates the late 1800s in a paper sense,” she said.
’50 Treasures’ is an exhibition of objects from the collection at James Cook University, which has campuses in Townsville and Cairns.
The University’s collection catalogues culture and controversy spanning 150 years.
Treasured objects reveal painful past
A ledger of South Sea Islanders transported to Townsville to work in sugar plantations is one of the early records that did manage to survive the ravages of weather and time.
The handwritten register, from 1895, was a controversial inclusion in a show named ‘Treasures’, but historians emphasise its importance.
“It’s been revealed to us that it’s important — by South Sea Islander people actually coming to see it.
“There’s a lot of pretty business [in the show], a lot of beautiful things, but some things are just so important they cant be left out,” she said.
Objects of the bizarre and beautiful
The objects chosen for the show give voice to characters from North Queensland history that were largely overlooked for decades.
That is something the selection of objects seeks to address, by including photos of women at work during a scientific expedition to the Great Barrier Reef in 1928.
While women appear in the black and white photos from the trip, they were left out of the written records of that expedition.
“About 60 scientists came over for that expedition,” Ms McBurnie said.
“A whole lot of them were women with the same qualifications and operating at the same level as the men, but their names never made it onto the scientific papers.”
‘Never judge a book by it’s cover’
Some of more unusual objects in the show are modern artworks that explore what it is to live and work in North Queensland.
There are old tourism brochures from a time when Queensland was marketed as an Australian paradise, as well as private botanical sketchbooks that document the landscapes and lifeforms of the tropics.
She said the more personal objects give a glimpse into the toughness required by the men and women who lived in the northern tropics at a time when the comforts, and sometimes necessities, of life were scarce.
Ms McBurnie pointed to an autograph book kept by a young woman who asked her friends and acquaintances to leave their musings in its pages.
The content veers from sombre reflections on the future of humankind, penned during World War I, to racy poems and mail order cuttings.
One of the entries in elegant ink writing reads; “never judge a book by it’s cover nor a woman by the dress she wears”.
The weathered but resilient objects on show in the exhibition prove that it is what’s inside the covers that the brightest and sometimes the darkest episodes of history are hidden.