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Treasure trove of island tales unearthed
The first time I stayed on Moreton Island, there was a full moon rising over the ocean, swaying palm trees, the sound of waves breaking on the shore. It was utterly, ridiculously idyllic. I couldn't believe Brisbane had this tropical paradise on its doorstep.
Later, I wandered the ruins at St Helena Island, colonial Queensland's maximum security prison. I was once again struck with wonder of a different kind - this time at the rich history of this site which remains underrated and little-known compared to Tasmania's Port Arthur.
The Tangalooma wrecks off Moreton Island. Brisbane Marketing image.
So it was thrilling to see the opening of The Many Lives of Moreton Bay exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane, which runs until 12 October 2014. Finally, here, are captured a multitude of untold stories - and, boy, they are beautifully told.
What I didn't realise until attending this exhibition is that there is much more to Moreton Bay than Moreton Island, St Helena Island and Stradbroke Island (affectionately known as Straddie). In fact, Moreton Bay - its Aboriginal name being Quandamooka - boasts 365 islands in total. 'That's one for every day of the year, depending on what the tide is doing,' our guide explains.
A giant interactive map located at the entrance to the exhibition works on multiple layers - providing information, for example, on the names and number of islands; the indigenous territories and myriad other details. For, as is explained as the exhibition unfolds, 'the beauty of the Bay is not just skin deep'.
The many lives of Moreton Bay burrows under the surface to paint a complex picture of these islands. It's not always flattering - thinking of Peel Island's status as a former leper colony, Moreton Island's previous incarnation as a whaling station and Stradbroke Island's sometimes fraught relationship with sand mining interests. 'We haven't left anything out just because people might find certain industries or stories distasteful - we wanted as full a portrayal as possible,' our guide explains.
The many lives of Moreton Bay includes the against-all-odds discovery of an 1878 painting by St Helena Island convict Charles Winn which has forced historians to rethink their knowledge of this notorious prison. Another poignant painting on display is of a lonely tree by a beach - painted at the very spot where a mother looked across the water to Peel Island where her nine-year-old son was taken after being diagnosed with leprosy.
The exhibition also includes many ordinary, everyday objects which have their own stories to tell - such as oversize wooden draughts used in recreation by the inmates of Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on Stradbroke Island. Grave markers from the island's cemeteries. Cups and bowls. Collections of shells.