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Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Cook Display


Part of the Cook Collection display case


The Cook Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM), Oxford, has recently been rehoused in a purpose-built glass case, 8 metres long and 2.8m tall. I had the opportunity to see it in October 2016, and heartily recommend a visit to view this wonderful display.

Joseph Banks donated 27 artificial curiosities to Christ Church, Oxford, and JR Forster and George Forster gave over 200 objects to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Since the 1880s all of these items have been housed at the PRM, but not always on display.1

Pitt Rivers Museum was formed in 1884, when General AHLF Pitt-Rivers gave his personal collection of about 30,000 artefacts and photographs to Oxford University. They were housed in a purpose-built extension to the Natural History Museum, Oxford. Indeed, the entrance to the PRM is through the Natural History Museum. The museum now has over 600,000 objects. The objects are crowded together in cases, laid out by themes, based on General Pitt-Rivers’s idea of the educational importance of museums. He thought that everyday commonplace artefacts give more of an insight into the past than do exceptional things that are made.2

We know from a photograph of about 1900 that part of the Cook display was to the left of the entrance to the PRM. In 1940 it was dismantled and the collection sent away for safe-keeping. After the War the display was not reinstalled. In 1968 a special exhibition of the Cook Collection was created with items gathered from all parts of the Pitt Rivers Museum and its stores. After it closed in 1971 part of the collection was displayed in a dedicated case.3

In 2002, Jeremy Coote (Curator and Joint Head of Collections at PRM, and CCS member) re-discovered the overlooked collection that Joseph Banks had given to Oxford. In 2004, it was loaned to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby.4 In 2009 the display was dismantled when more than 60 objects were loaned to an exhibition that toured Bonn, Vienna, and Bern.5

The new display case was purchased with a grant from the DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, with additional support from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The display includes objects from both the Banks and the Forster collections, such as one of the few surviving examples of a Tahitian mourner's dress, and one of only two surviving examples of a Tahitian fau, or warrior's helmet. There are also shell and feather ornaments from the Marquesas Islands, a barkcloth quilt from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), baskets and necklaces from Tonga, musical instruments and spear-throwers from Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and cloaks, belts and ornaments from New Zealand. Some of them can be seen in the photos I took during my visit.

There is a dedicated website for the Cook Voyage collection that is full of information, images, and links to further resources.6

With a grant from the Clothworkers’ Foundation, Jeremy Uden, Senior Fellow at PRM, was able to investigate plant materials, resins and construction techniques used in the creation of many of the objects in the Cook collection. In 2012, Jeremy Uden started a blog about the conservation work that was being conducted.7 Other people involved also contributed. Reading the blog entries I was struck by the following snippets of information. The collection contains reed arrows from Tanna, possibly poisonous. A mat from Mo`orea with some tears in it was conserved with the help of Japanese tissue. Large pieces of bark cloth had been previously kept folded and stacked leading to uneven wear on the folded areas—after cleaning and conserving the cloth was rolled and put into boxes made specially for each one. Some of the fibres of the artefacts were examined using the British Museum’s scanning electron microscope, leading to a fishhook thought to be from Hawaii being re-attributed to New Zealand as the cord was identified as being of New Zealand flax. Black dyes in the South Pacific were made using extracts of bark, high in tannin, followed by immersion in mud that would have been high in iron.

The headdress of the Tahitian mourner’s costume is not a single item, but made of seven bundles of feathers tied around the top of a hat. The Cook collection has eight Maori cloaks, of which five are in the display.

An object described in 1886 as “A New Zealand Woman’s Apron or Petticoat” had got lost during the subsequent years. It was rediscovered in 2014 amongst some grass clothing from Papua New Guinea held elsewhere in the PRM. It has now joined the rest of the Cook-voyage collection.

Some of the objects had been loaned to the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition of 1883 in Amsterdam.

An adze from New Zealand (shown bottom right on next page below) was probably never used as a tool, but held by someone to show he was of high status. The blade is made of nephrite, a form of Jade. The lashing is flax, holding the blade to the haft. Haliotis shell forms the eyes. A large mat mounted on the wall at the back of the display case (shown below above behind the Tahitian mourner’s costume) is held up with magnets.

In 2014, Jeremy Uden gave a talk about the Cook-voyage barkcloth to the international conference “Made in Oceania - Social and cultural meaning, restoration and museum presentation of Oceanic tapa” held in Cologne. Later that year he attended the conference of the International Council of Museums’ Committee for Conservation held in Melbourne, and presented a paper on the analysis of pesticide residues on the Cook-voyage collections.8

Ian Boreham


  1. Coote, Jeremy. Cook-Voyage Collections of ‘Artificial Curiosities’ in Britain and Ireland, 1771-2015. Museum Ethnographers Group. Occasional paper no. 5. 2015. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 31, vol. 39, no. 4 (2016).
  2. O’Hanlon, Michael. The Pitt Rivers Museum: a world within. Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd. 2014.
  3. Coote, Jeremy. “Cook-voyage: a case history” in Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Magazine. 2015. No. 83.
  4. Cook’s Log, page 4, vol. 27, no. 2 (2004).
  5. Cook’s Log, page 25, vol. 32, no. 1 (2009).
  6. http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/cookvoyages/index.php/en/index.html
  7. http://conserving-curiosities.blogspot.co.uk
  8. Uden, Jeremy. “Building Strong Culture in Melbourne” in Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Magazine. 2015. No. 82.



















Originally published in Cook's Log, page 47, volume 40, number 1 (2017).


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