Candidate: David Phoenix
Academic Mentor: Dr Jan Wegner
Industry Partner: Cairns Historical Society
Project title: Continuing the professional development of the Cairns Museum
James Cook University PhD historian David Phoenix undertook a five-month internship at the Cairns Museum which is operated by the Cairns Historical Society. The Museum has recently re-opened after an extensive refurbishment and Phoenix worked with management and volunteers to help showcase the new Museum to locals and visitors and extend its outreach program to the general public.
One project Phoenix undertook was to develop a heritage walking tour of the CBD aimed at visiting cruise liner passengers. He researched and wrote a script for the tour and produced additional background material and images so that volunteer guides could showcase the historical values of the city and Museum. He trained guides to ensure the tours were delivered to a high standard, which was an important consideration in the competitive tourism industry in Cairns. The tour now delivers a comprehensive understanding of the history of Cairns in an informal and relaxed manner, which showcases the region and Museum and encourages visitors to think about Aboriginal-Anglo-Australian interactions, the effects of distance and isolation, the multicultural nature of the early development of Cairns and the importance of transport and communication networks on colonial expansion.
Phoenix produced a book to complement the tour, which has a general educational value and presents additional information and images about heritage locations in Cairns. This encourages both locals and visitors to explore the history of the city, and it provides a revenue stream for the Museum.
Phoenix produced an additional publication which used the collection at the Cairns Historical Society to produce original research into aspects of the founding of Cairns during the Hodgkinson gold rush in the 1870s. This publication fills a gap in the understanding of the history of Far North Queensland and will be useful for the general public, particularly locals, as well as the Museum and their schools outreach program. The research for this publication included a thorough examination of an historical artefact which has contributed to Cairns’ local history as well as to the Museum collection.
During my internship at the Cairns Museum I did some archival research and wrote some original history, which was a thoroughly enjoyable process and, in many ways, very similar to researching and writing my PhD. However the internship also exposed me to new archival collections, not only the Cairns Historical Society collections, with which I was not familiar, but also aspects of the Queensland State Archives, land tenure databases at the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, and the Australian War Memorial Collections. I interacted with, and received advice from Cairns Historical Society members who had a remarkable understanding of local history and who were well versed with these collections and databases.
I wrote museum artefact significance statements, and in the process I interacted with people who were experts in a wide range of subjects – bronze artefacts, Egyptology, numismatism. It was a delight to interact with a research community who were so willing to share their knowledge and expertise on their specialised subjects. The skills involved in writing significance statements for historical artefacts are an important addition to my CV as a historian.
I also gained an understanding of the Museum’s collection policy and the extent of the Cairns Historical Society’s research collection. I used the Cairns Historical Society map collection extensively and learnt about land tenure in Queensland (something I did not have to address as part of my PhD). I gained an understanding of the intricacies of curating a collection for future generations while also making it available and accessible to researchers.
I gained insights into running a museum as a business and the methods used to attract visitors and engage them with the collections. I saw the inordinate amount of work that goes into staging temporary exhibitions, and learnt ways of presenting artefacts and images in a way that resonates with Museum visitors, and most importantly I learnt the importance of interpreting artefacts by telling social history stories about them that enable people to connect to the artefact.
I also came to realise the contribution the volunteers make to running the Museum and Research Centre, and how they enjoy interacting with visitors and how proud they are to show visitors the history of their city. The Museum and the volunteer program educate locals and visitors, both domestic and international, which contributes to the tourism industry which is a vital part of the Cairns economy.