After two smaller meetings in Vienna in 2010,1 and in Bern in 2011,2 the year 2012 offered the opportunity for a greater event. Many German CCS members had expressed their desire to visit the Cook-Forster-Collection in Göttingen3 in its “natural environment”.
We learnt that the Collection would be open to the public only until the end of April, as it would then be packed again for another exhibition elsewhere (frequently-travelling items indeed). Planning our meeting had to take place very quickly. A date was decided on in conjunction with Dr. Gundolf Krüger, curator of the Cook-Forster-Collection.4
So on March 31, a rainy and cool day that reminded us of Yorkshire in October but with a less breath-taking landscape, at 3 pm twelve CCS members and two potential members, plus Dr. Krüger met in a conference room at Göttingen University. Five well prepared and diverse talks were given and enthusiastically received:
“Joseph Banks’ south seas collection in the Ethnographical Museum in Munich”
“Travelling in the Wake of Cook in the South Seas - Cook-Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu / Tanna, Botany Bay / Sydney and Cooktown / Cape Tribulation”
“Omai and the Animals - Thoughts on Animals and their Translational Meaning in the South Seas”
“Georg Forster - From Naturalist, World Traveller with Cook to Writer, Cultural Mediator and Revolutionary”
“Tobias Mayer - Mathematician, Cartographer and Astronomer of the Enlightenment”
This feast for the mind was followed by food for the stomach at the “Potato House”, with time for lively discussions and rambling conversation well into the night.
After a splendid breakfast the next morning we walked to the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, which houses the Cook-Forster-Collection. We were welcomed by Gundolf Krüger. He gave a very detailed talk and presentation prepared especially for us, in which we learned that the collection consists of about 500 items brought from all three of Cook’s voyages. They came to Göttingen from the estate of Georg Forster and were purchased/given by King George III of England, a member of the House of Hannover (his father George II was born in Hannover and had founded the Georgia Augusta University in Göttingen in 1732). A quarter of all remaining Cook items worldwide are housed in Göttingen, which is quite remarkable.
Some items were lost in a spectacular break-in in 1932, when a Hawaiian feather cloak and a feather helmet were stolen. The helmet was returned undamaged after coming to light in Berlin in 1947. The cloak remains lost. Dr. Krüger has turned detective researching this affair with interesting results.5 Another odd story involves Johann Friedrich Blumenbach FRS, first curator of the collection, and a Tongan meat-safe food hook. He liked it so much that he took it home with him to use it, and put a replica in its place. The hook is used to prevent rats from eating the meat hung at the hook by them falling off the disc above the hook.
We were guided through the exhibition rooms where major restoration was being undertaken. A new building to house the collection is planned as well. Most items are currently stored in the basement but as an inventory of them was being conducted during our visit, we were unable to go there as well. What a pity.
After two hours we hurried on to the Albrecht von Haller Institute of plant sciences, housing the Herbarium (founded in 1832) where Georg Forster’s collection of dried plants is kept.
We were met by curator Dr. Jürgen Heinrichs, who showed us some examples of Forster’s plants and told us about them in a lively and entertaining manner. He spoke of recent molecular research taking place to better identify the specimens, and how the whole Forster Collection is about to be digitalized.
One particularly amusing anecdote he related occurred when he showed us plant number 249, which was labelled Cupressus columnaris by Georg Forster but is now known as Araucaria columnaris.
When Johann Reinhold Forster saw these strange looking trees from the sea he was sure that they were pillars of stone.6 Cook bet him some bottles of wine that they were trees (as he had seen
something similar during his First Voyage). Of course, Cook won and JR Forster’s wine store decreased.
It was a great experience to see and touch these 240-year old plants and labels with the original handwriting of Georg Forster. Living history indeed.
Although bombing during World War II occurred over Göttingen, only the railway was hit, leaving the rest of the town little damaged. The two great collections were unaffected - their loss would have been inestimable .
Our minds overflowing we set off to the best cafè in town, where we had cake, gateau, hot chocolate and coffee. It seems as though we could have gone on for hours talking and sharing our experiences. However, being Sunday afternoon we had to turn our bows homeward towards family, work and everyday life again.
My problem now is that I have raised the bar higher for our meeting in 2013. However, I will give it a try anyway!
Photos by Helene Nymphius, Irmtraut Koop, Michael Spiekien, Satu Panzner and me. My thanks to all for their support.
Some of the comments made to me afterwards
“It was the most fascinating week-end this year with a great bunch of marvellous people! I would even sail with them to Botany Bay (though on a Replica with all modern luxury, of course)”.
“For me, the meeting of the Captain Cook Society in Göttingen was refreshing like bathing in the lagoon of a Polynesian island. The encounters with people, places and objects of the past and the present were amazing and interesting. As J.W. Goethe told us, ‘We don’t get to know people when they visit us, we’ve got to go to them to find out about them’.”
“I will never forget the truly wonderful and impressive days in Göttingen. I am glad to be a CCS member and be part of this great group of people. Can’t wait for the next meeting!”
“We had the rare chance to look at original specimens collected by the Forsters on Cook’s
Second Voyage, all annotated in their own handwriting. What made the visit to the Herbarium at the Albrecht-von-Haller Institute so memorable was Dr. Jochen Heinrichs’s vivid description of how the Forsters worked during the voyage, their personalities and the clash of interests with Cook. A hot tip for any visitor to Göttingen”.
“One of the many highlights of our little conference was Dr. Gundolf Krüger’s talk on the way some artifacts ‘travel’ out of museum collections into private collectors’ hands, and how so much detective work is necessary to assign them back to a collection made on one of Cook’s voyages. A wide open field for further research”.
“It was a paradisiacal, felicitous event. I couldn’t really concentrate on my work next morning as my thoughts kept wandering!”
“Captain James Cook brought us together!”
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 35, number 3 (2012).
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