The symposium on 4 May, 2019, was titled “The ethnographic artefacts of the Forster collections in dialogue with their cultures of origin”. It was held at the historic inn “Zum Eichenkranz” (the oak wreath), and chaired by Brigitte Mang (chair and director of the KsDW). In attendance were members and guests of the three organisations GFG, KsDW and CCS.
Wolfgang Savelsberg (head of the department of castles and collections at the KsDW) presented a knowledgeable lecture on the history of the “South Sea curiosities” of Wörlitz, where they had been publicly accessible for a long time at a purpose-built “Forster pavilion” atop the Eisenhart.
In his presentation, “The Wörlitz example: Regarding the renaissance of old South Sea collections” Dieter Heintze (GFG, Bremen) pointed out that it was only during the past three decades that engagement with these collections intensified to a point that did justice to their significance for their original communities, the contexts of the cultural transfer as well as the respective views of one community towards the other.
Phyllis S. Herda (Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland) shed some light in her talk on the Forsters’ stay in Tonga during a period of frequent change in the history of these Polynesian islands. She scrutinised the ethnological descriptions of these two naturalists, the images created in the process, artefacts (bartered and given), as well as the influence that these “remnants” of the expedition had on the understanding of past events and the direction of Tongan politics during the second half of the 18th century.
Frank Vorpahl4 (GFG, curator of the exhibition) presented “Tapa from Tonga and bags that aren’t actually bags”. He described the long years of research undertaken regarding the provenance, origin and acquisition of these artefacts, and gave a critical reflection of the profound writings of the Forsters—a basis for research that could open up a new perspective on the Wörlitz collection. Of particular importance was the intensive exchange with experts from Tonga and New Zealand, together with the project group “Ancient Futures” of the University of Auckland and the cultural work shop “Ancient Tonga” in Nuku´alofa, which contribute to the revitalisation of Tongan cultural heritage today.
Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck (“Ancient Futures Marsden Project”, University of Auckland) highlighted in her lecture “Ancient Futures: Tongan Art of the 18th and 19th Centuries and Their Legacy” how relationships of mutual trust between ethnographic collections/museums and the countries of origin developed especially to the diasporic Pacific community in New Zealand and the Kingdom of Tonga. As a practicing contemporary artist she incorporates the historical background of the manual manufacturing processes for these artefacts in her own artwork.
Following Dagmar Dyck’s words there was a lunch break, including a walk to the nearby “Eisenhart” with its South Seas pavilion, where the Forster collection was kept for many years before it was sent for restoration and thence to the climate-controlled rooms in the attic of Wörlitz Castle.
After lunch, Susanne Wernsing (University of Göttingen) described her current work exploring the natural history inventory of the “Königlichen Akademischen Museums” (Royal Academic Museum) of the University of Göttingen during the period from 1773 to 1878, which is part of a research project called “Sammeln” (collecting). She pondered whether it is possible to trace the increasing differentiation of scientific disciplines, from the end of the 18th century, through the practices regarding the collection and its objects (as well as the rearrangement of the inventory), especially regarding the Cook/Forster portfolios? Or are they mutually dependent? The initial result from the work was “The rearrangement of the ‘South Sea curiosities’ ”.
Andrew Mills (School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow) highlighted the fact that Tongan war clubs are counted among the most remarkable works of art that were traded at the time of Cook’s Second Voyage in Oceania. The weapons that were collected and described by the Forsters in Tonga in 1773/74 are among the most important sources for understanding the changing concept of art regarding Tongan wood sculptures in the 18th and 19th centuries, as their shapes have completely changed since about 1800.
Billie Lythberg (University of Auckland Business School) remarked that the Tongan tapa items of the Wörlitz Forster Collection are in fact a modular microcosm. She elaborated on the structure of manufacture, its connection with comparable historical items in other collections worldwide, as well as with contemporary manufacture of tapa, and she emphasised their important role for the peaceful joining of continents and countries and their inhabitants.
In conclusion, Michael Ewert (GFG, Munich) eloquently summarised the most important findings of the symposium.