During the first weekend of May 2019, the South Sea Collection at Wörlitz was returned to public viewing, which led to much celebration in Wörlitz.
After his second circumnavigation of the globe James Cook returned to England in 1775. With him were the two German naturalists Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster. Later that year the Forsters were visited in London by Franz and Louise, the rulers of Anhalt-Dessau. The Forsters presented them with a collection of “artefacts” that they had obtained by bartering in Tonga, Tahiti and New Zealand, which became known as the South Seas Collection of Wörlitz.1
After more than 30 years of being in storage these extraordinarily valuable ethnographic items are again accessible to the public. Recent research over several years has been undertaken regarding the provenance and acquisition of individual items, as well as extensive conservation of those in need of it, in cooperation with scientists from the Pacific regions. The opening of the new exhibition was accompanied by a symposium of the Cultural Foundation of Dessau-Wörlitz (Kulturstiftung Dessau-Wörlitz, KsDW)<2 with the participation of the Georg Forster Society (Georg Forster Gesellschaft, GFG)3 as well as a meeting of the German branch of the Captain Cook Society (CCS).
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.
Following the symposium participants were invited by the KsDW to join a gondola ride on the Wörlitz Castle Lakeland or to visit the “Stein” island with its Villa Hamilton and volcano.
The gondola we were in was called Georg Forster, which seemed very appropriate. We were accompanied by Wolfgang Savelsberg, who pointed out and explained all the passing sights in a very diverting way. Even a shower of rain could not diminish the good mood of all on board.
Afterwards everyone met at “Zieglers” restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed good food and good company with lively conversations and shared stories.
In the morning of 5 May, 2019, members and guests of the CCS met at the “Wörlitzer Hof” for their meeting.
Talks started with Rolf Siemon5 (Hann Münden) granting insights into the beginnings of scientific ethnography, as well as into the emergence of anthropology and ethnology as discrete sciences, in his lecture “The Science of the human being around 1800: are all men equal or is the ‘moor’ more akin to ape-kind?” In the course of the history of discovery and natural research, attention in Europe was redirected towards new groups of people, the history of mankind itself was discussed vividly, and the corresponding knowledge expanded considerably. During this time, the town of Göttingen occupied a central position.
Han Vermeulen (Max Planck Institute for ethnological research, Halle/Saale) explained that scientifically standardised methods for the investigation and description of foreign peoples had already been developed by German naturalists for the academic expeditions of the Russian Empire in Siberia and Russo-America. Subsequently, there was a broader distribution via contacts between St. Petersburg and Göttingen, and elsewhere. Presumably, the Forsters were inspired by these instructions, which they then successfully applied in their own research during the expedition with Cook.
Heiko Schnickmann (CCS, GFG Wuppertal) outlined in his lecture the “Images of Africa in the descriptions of the Cook voyages”. Cook and the Forsters stayed at the Cape of Good Hope, a mere stopover for them on their way to the South Seas. That the indigenous population there was quite approachable was only mentioned by the voyagers in passing. One exception was the description of sheep farming there, introduced by the Boers, that sporadically played a role in the cultural contact between the Boers and the indigenous population.
Following our meeting we walked around the corner to the castle. Here the opening of the new permanent exhibition “Return into the Light – Georg Forster and the Wörlitz South Seas Collection” was celebrated with festivities featuring musical contributions by Gaia-Percussion (Dessau). There were numerous guests of honour in attendance with varying cultural and political backgrounds. After opening remarks by Brigitte Mang, Reiner Haseloff (Premier of the state of Saxony-Anhalt) made a short welcoming speech, in which he said he already knew the collection from his youth.
After an introduction to the exhibition by Frank Vorpahl, Wolfgang Savelsberg launched the exhibition catalogue.6
There then followed a lunch break outside in the sunshine. Strengthened and nourished, the many visitors were divided into groups to be given guided tours of the exhibition. Later, there was an exclusive tour for members of the GFG and the CCS led by curator Frank Vorpahl.
The exhibition was opened to the general public on 6 May. We highly recommend a visit.
We thank everyone who was involved in making possible this successful joint venture, especially curator Frank Vorpahl and the staff of the Kulturstiftung Dessau-Wörlitz.
All photos are by Anke Meissner if not otherwise stated.
Rolf Siemon and Anke Meissner
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 42, number 3 (2019).
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