Many Australian media reported this weekend that the Great Barrier Reef is among the list of potential Queensland items to be officially turned into "cultural icons". The National Trust Queensland is seeking nominations of things that make Queensland unique. 12 Queensland “icons” will form one third of an exhibition at the Queensland Museum. The other 24 were chosen in 2004 and 2005. Already on the list are such notables as the Pub with No Beer, the Gabba and Bundy Rum. The 2006 list of 12 will be chosen on 28 September.
Though the Reef is more known for its ecological properties, it is likely to achieve the cultural immortality as it gets its imprimatur from the tourist industry. Fraser Island is also nominated in this category. A third nomination is for the Quinkan Rock Art at Laura where the Ang-Gnarra run tours of rock drawings of an ancient Aboriginal society.
Moving back into the water, the Moreton Bay Bug has been pressed into serving its state in the identification stakes. The bug, thenus orientalis, is not totally indigenous to Queensland, its habitat is all of the coastline of the Northern half of Australia. Outside of Queensland it is known by a string of other mobster sounding names that are waiting for the band the B-52s to do something with: Bay Lobster, Bug, Shovelnose Lobster, Slipper Lobster, Squat Lobster and Mud Bug. Unfortunately for the humble bug, whatever you call it, the BBC has used it in another list of 50 things to eat before you die. Hopefully not everyone will take this campaign to heart. There is a human dimension to the bug’s culture entry as they are a staple catch of the Queensland Trawl Fishery industry.
The farming industy throws its akubra into the ring too with the nomination of the Bowen mango. The mango tree is a native of India. Two southern languages, Tamil and Malayam, claim ownership of the word and the Hindu Vedas described mangos as the "food of the gods". The fruit is easily cultivated and spread to any climate worldwide which no guarantee no frosts. Because these are high population areas, it is possibly the most eaten fruit in the world. It thrived in Northern Australia which has now has many varieties. The tastiest is the Kensington Pride, which is popularly called the Bowen Special mango. Bowen's unusually dry climate for a tropical location, plus its fertile alluvial soil, makes it the ideal place to grow a wide variety of small crops. But it is the mango that has the name attached to it and that’s the one that is a possible Queensland cultural “entity”.
But the “icon” nomination that has gathered most attention and the only reason the list in the news at all, is the inclusion of the Surfers Paradise meter maids. They are a 40 year old tradition where bikini-clad girls walk around the town putting change into parking meters. They claim this the only place in the world where parkers are subsidised in this fashion. The Maids were a 1965 brainwave of local entrepreneur Bernie Elsey help to beat the bad image created by the installation of parking meters in December 1964. Since then they have spearheaded many tourist campaigns for the tourist strip. Because the method chosen is on the faultline of sexism, the meter maids are not without critics and thus their appearance on the cultural index is given prominent attention in the headline for the whole event. It is now safely beyond argument in the list of things that are “iconic”.
In semiotics, an icon is a sign where the signifier (in this case, the Reef or the maid) resembles the thing it refers to (in this case Queensland). Clearly none of these things physically resembles Queensland. But they have a power of association that is redolent and real for all that. Primarily it is because they are all driven by human commerce. The identity they have for humans reading these signs is they are is part of an imagined Queensland community that everyone shares in a comfortable mutual illusion.
Woolly Days awaits the final list of 12 with curious interest.