Cook-Voyage Collections of ‘Artificial Curiosities’ in Britain and Ireland, 1771-2015.  Jeremy Coote.   2015.

Cook-Voyage Collections of ‘Artificial Curiosities’ in Britain and Ireland, 1771-2015. Jeremy Coote. 2015.

Coote, Jeremy.

Cook-Voyage Collections of ‘Artificial Curiosities’ in Britain and Ireland, 1771-2015.

Museum Ethnographers Group.

Occasional paper no. 5.


ISSN 0264-1704.

300 pages.


This book comprises an introduction and seven essays by ethnographers associated with Cook-related collections located at museums and universities in Britain and Ireland.  It is the fifth in a series of “occasional papers” published by the Museum Ethnographers Group since 1982.



“Artificial Curiosities” was the term used in the eighteenth-century for items made by indigenous peoples encountered during Cook’s voyages, such as clothing, tools or utensils, weapons, decorative arts, musical instruments, and personal items such as combs.  This category does not include items in a “natural” state (e.g. shells, stones, rocks, plants, feathers), which often served as the material from which artificial curiosities were made. 


Coote identifies two purposes of the collected essays.  The first is to “deepen our knowledge of what was collected on the voyages, what is where now, and what is apparently lost”.  The second purpose is to throw “light on what was done – and what wasn’t done – with the collections”. 


The book examines the Cook collections at the British Museum, the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Trinity College Dublin, and Edinburgh, and the collections located in North-East England (mainly the counties of Northumberland and Durham).  The final section considers the objects from all three Cook voyages that arrived in London, and were then distributed elsewhere.  The essays contain frequent references to other museums, especially in Bonn and Vienna, and world-wide research connections inspired by the collections.  The book excludes Cook-related items in the Middlesbrough-Whitby area of Yorkshire. 


The essays are packed with detail.  My review will highlight some of the more interesting observations or anecdotes about the collections of artificial curiosities, especially the initial donations to museums in Britain and Ireland tied to persons who travelled on the three Cook voyages.  In doing so, I shall barely “scratch the surface” of the enormous amount covered by the authors. 




Jennifer Newell describes the history of the Cook-voyage objects in the British Museum, which opened its South Seas Room in 1778.  It quickly became one of the most popular for visitors but, interestingly, it was less popular for Museum officials.  Sir Joseph Banks (appointed a trustee in 1778), Daniel Solander, J.R. Forster, Captain Tobias Furneaux, and others assisted in varying degrees the donation of items to the Museum’s collections.  Banks and Solander both contributed to cataloguing and organizing the collections.  Solander continued his work at the Museum until his early death in 1782.  He pioneered methods of preservation.  Cook gave most of his artificial curiosities to the Admiralty, which, in turn, presented them to the Museum.  Regrettably, 50% to 75% of these donated items were misplaced over time, or were lost entirely, or lost their accurate identification.  Interest in Cook receded after the early 19th century, but revived after the bi-centenary (1968 to 1980), with refocused, major exhibitions.  In recent years indigenous scholars have also studied the Museum collections. 




The University of Cambridge Museum of Archae-ology and Anthropology (MAA) houses over 250 Cook-related objects, and has, writes Amiria Salmond, “the largest documented collection of first-voyage artefacts anywhere in the world”.  The MAA has extensive identification for objects in its collections tying some of them to specific encounters documented in the accounts of the voyages.  In recent years, the collections have been studied in greater detail to examine the nature of the exchanges that took place during the voyages between the Europeans and the South Sea peoples.  This work has included visits by Pacific scholars, artists and others, as well as the use of information technology to forge long distance relationships, and to reach broader audiences. 


The collection is derived from three main sources.  Rudolph Feilding, ninth Earl of Denbigh, and his wife, donated many Cook items in 1912-1913.  The objects had once belonged to the antiquarian and zoologist Thomas Pennant, who knew Cook, Banks, Forster and Sir Ashton Lever.  The Holdsworth family of Widdicombe House, Devon, donated many artefacts that were once part of the Leverian Museum (Leicester House, London, auctioned 1806).  The largest donation was by the Fellows of Trinity College, who had been given many items by John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Cook’s patron.  His link to Cambridge was that he had once been a student there.  Each part of the collection is covered in great detail in the essay, with several illustrations.  Two of the first ethnographers to study the material were the late Peter Gathercole and Adrienne Kaeppler, whose essay is the seventh in this book.




Joseph Banks donated artificial curiosities to Christ Church, Oxford, and J.R. Forster and George Forster gave some to the University’s Ashmolean Museum.  Since the 1880s all of these items have been housed at the University’s Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM).  The initial donation by Banks occurred at least as early as January 1773, and part of it survives today in 27 items identified and catalogued in 1860.  These are First Voyage artefacts, but it is almost impossible to tie any one to a specific documented event during Endeavour’s voyage.  The Forsters gave their objects in 1776, after the Second Voyage.  A list made then has 177 entries, but there were more than 177 objects, as many were grouped together.  It is amazing to read that the list made in 1776 was misplaced and unused until it was rediscovered by Adrienne Kaeppler in 1969.  


Jeremy Coote describes what happened to the Forster material after its arrival as “sketchy”.  With the opening of the Pitt River Museum in 1886, greater attention was paid in classifying and arranging these items.  As is the case at other museums, cataloguing and exhibiting Cook-related items has gathered steam from the late 1960s.  And Coote has done even more since his arrival at the museum in 1994.  Some items had been lost or misidentified, but many have proved so important they have been loaned to other museums in places as far apart as Whitby, Bonn, Vienna, and Berne.  Coote provides his insight into the redevelopment of the permanent museum display, and the creation of a dedicated website that makes the Cook-voyage material even more widely available. 




Today there are 130 Cook-related items in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI).  Past collection lists have been determined as incomplete or misleading since some mixed donated and loaned items.  The first artificial curiosities were donated by James Patten (surgeon, Resolution, Second Voyage), Captain James King (Discovery and Resolution, Third Voyage), Lieutenant John Williamson (Resolution, Third Voyage), and George Barber (carpenter’s mate, Resolution, Third Voyage).  Regrettably, Williamson is incorrectly identified as “Captain” in this essay by Rachel Hand.  Patten and King donated their items in 1777; Williamson and Barber in 1780.  Who donated which items, and when, has been sorted out only in more recent years.  Cook-related items have also been given on loan to NMI in the past 30 years.


Early references to these artefacts “lay initially in their curiosity and entertainment value, their evidence of manners and customs of seemingly ‘exotic’ people, but also in their personal connections to Cook and local surgeon James Patten”.  These direct associations to specific persons appear to have been lost later in the 19th century.  Accurate identification and re-classification of these artificial curiosities continues today.  The essay ends with a detailed list of curiosities of late 18th century objects at the NMI with an attempt to define provenance.  Unfortunately, many have no label, whilst a few have a label with the vague “Cook Collection”. 




There are 288 Cook-related items in the National Museums Scotland (NMS) collections from the Second and Third Voyages.  These are principally from three donations.  Elizabeth, Cook’s widow, gave objects from the Third Voyage to Sir John Pringle (a Scot, and President of the Royal Society before Banks), who sent them to Edinburgh in 1781.  William Anderson (surgeon’s mate, Resolution, Second Voyage), sent (in 1775), the things he had collected.  Anderson died in August 1778 (whilst surgeon, Resolution, Third Voyage), and it is considered likely his relatives presented his later acquisitions.  Although artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson were Scots, both died prior to the end of the First Voyage, and the existence and whereabouts of their collections are unknown. 


Dale Idiens and Chantal Knowles believe 288 Cook-voyage items were donated in total.  Over time, many objects were lost.  Today only 45 items are identifiable, mostly from the Third Voyage.  The authors conclude, “That so few objects survive or are identifiable, today is a consequence of institutional rivalries, wilful neglect, and the frequent transfer of collections between institutions, which has played a large part in the destruction of objects and the loss of documentation”.


North-East England


Cook-related artificial curiosities or other objects that arrived in North-East England were the result of efforts by individuals and not institutions.  Individual collectors, often termed antiquarians, as well as missionary societies, are identified in this essay, by Leslie Jessop, in relation to actual or possible Cook-related items.  These often passed through many hands over time.  Jessop explains how to identify the source of curiosities by the use of what she calls graffiti—the informal inscriptions or labels placed on objects by the initial or subsequent collector.  The final section concerns the identifi-cation of Māori pendants from the First Voyage.  


From the South Seas to London


The final essay is by Adrienne Kaeppler, whose 1978 study Artificial Curiosities is considered a landmark work in tracing ethnographic items associated with Captain Cook.  It appears in the reference list at the end of every preceding essay, and her work over the many years since then is given prominence by all of the essayists.  In her own essay, Kaeppler summarizes the objects that arrived in London after each of Cook’s three voyages, and identifies the dealers, collectors and private museums that operated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  She includes photo-graphs of some of these collections, and of their catalogues.  Kaeppler concludes that “there is still much research to be done on the history of the ethnographic objects from the voyages of Captain Cook”.  She also notes (as do other authors in this collection of essays) that “it is unfortunate that many pieces have been attributed to Cook’s voyages without clear, dependable, histories”. 


These seven well-written, nicely-organized essays contain interesting and valuable information about the provenance of Cook-related artificial curiosities.  The book includes photographs of some of the arti-ficial curiosities, of drawings of various objects, as well as photos of original lists (handwritten or printed) from museums or auctions.  Detailed footnotes and extensive bibliographies accompany each essay.  Regrettably, there is no index. 


What use is this volume to Cook enthusiasts?  It is a very valuable reference work.  It places in a single volume extensive information about the Cook ethnographic collections in Britain and Ireland, with references to collections elsewhere.  If I were planning on visiting one or more of these museums, this would be a useful reference to consult prior to seeing the collection, as well as a useful supplement to information often handed out to museum visitors.  Persons who enjoy detective adventures, as in “where did that come from?” or “what happened to this or that?”, or want to understand what once existed, but now is lost, will find these essays interesting and sobering. 


It is obvious that the provenance of many Cook-related artificial curiosities has been lost over time, as objects have been misplaced or lost forever.  At times the story is very sketchy history indeed.  It is good to know that there are ethnographers who are at work identifying these objects, and explaining their significance for those of us who visit museums. 



James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 31, volume 39, number 4 (2016).

Available from: Sue Giles (MEG Publications), Senior World Cultures Curator, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Queen’s Road, Bristol BS8 1RL;; UK, £17.50; Europe, £22.00; World, £26.00 (including postage and packing).

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