Over 5,000 items of our Cultures & Histories collection are now accessible online for free. All you need is your device and a little bit of inspiration to explore Queensland’s cultural and natural heritage.
For millennia, people navigated and traded across the northern coast of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. When early European seafarers came face-to-face with the world’s largest coral reef system, it was not the beauty they saw, but a nearly unnavigable structure that could sink their ships.
Throughout the past 230 years, over 900 vessels met their end on the reef – but only 114 have been found.
Our shipwrecks are protected by law, ensuring they will be around for years to come. We can never replace these sites – once gone they are lost forever.
Shipwrecks are incredible heritage resources. Often thought of as time-capsules, each wreck preserves information about life at that time.
Archaeologists can reveal information about the ship, how it wrecked, who was onboard and what they were carrying. We can learn about immigration, war, trade and exploration throughout Queensland as well as around the world.
The museum is fortunate to hold over 8,000 artefacts from over 25 shipwrecks along Queensland's coast.
One iconic example is HMS Pandora – the oldest known shipwreck on the reef.
The tale of HMS Pandora is the lesser-known sequel to the infamous story, the “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Pandora was the Royal Navy ship sent to hunt down the Bounty mutineers in 1791. After months of searching for mutineers in the south Pacific, Captain Edwards headed home via the Torres Strait.
The 24-gun frigate ran aground onto the reef, sinking 30m to rest on a sandy sea floor. One mutineer and 35 crew lost their lives, and the survivors made an arduous journey in long boats to Indonesia. Lost for many centuries, divers rediscovered Pandora in 1977.
The museum led many archaeological investigations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Artefacts found include an enormous six-pounder cannon, ceramics, belt buckles, ivory instruments and even delicate organics like rope and cloth.
You can see an array of artefacts on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in the HMS Pandora Gallery.
In 1893, a wooden topsail schooner ran aground on Myrmidon Reef east of Townsville. The shipwreck remained undiscovered in 6m of water until identified as Foam in 1982.
Foam is the only Queensland shipwreck of a vessel engaged in the labour trade at the time of its demise. Research on Foam continues to shed light on the recruitment and transport of South Sea Islanders, known as 'blackbirding'.
Among the artefacts collected from the wreck were many ceramic armbands used for trade. We now know these armbands were European copies of the shell armbands used by South Sea Islanders as indicators of status or for trade. Europeans were introducing counterfeit copies into the Islanders’ exchange systems.
Foam continues to reveal information about the labour trade in Queensland.
Encountering a cyclone in 1911, SS Yongala disappeared without a trace. Known as “Australia’s Titanic”, all 122 people on board disappeared without a trace. The location of the steamship remained a mystery until discovered lying in 30 meters of water off Alva Beach in the 1950s.
Today, the haunting grave site has become a unique oasis.
Yongala is one of the most intact historic shipwrecks in Australian waters. Ongoing research explores how this wreck became a marine oasis. The site is one of the top ten best wreck dives worldwide.
Phillip Parker King used HMCS Mermaid to survey parts of the Australian coast throughout 1817-1820. Significantly, circumnavigating Australia and surveying a safe inner route through the Great Barrier Reef.
Mermaid wrecked on Flora Reef with no loss of life. Rediscovered in 2009, Mermaid is an example of an early 19th century shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef.
Scottish Prince was a merchant trading vessel operating between Australia and the United Kingdom. In 1887, Scottish Prince was approaching Brisbane when the vessel ran aground. Within the museum we have incredible artefacts, such as sewing machines, a bottle of pickled onions, bottles of whale oil and and whiskey bottles from Scottish Prince.