Discovering Cook's Collections 2009

Discovering Cook's Collections 2009

Michelle Hetherington and Howard Morphy (editors).
Discovering Cook's Collections.
National Museum of Australia Press. 
ISBN 978-1-87694-457-5. 
130 pages.

In 2006 the National Museum of Australia held an exhibition of artefacts from the Cook-Forster ethnographic collection of the University of Göttingen. It was called "Cook's Pacific Encounters".1 A one-day symposium was held in association with this exhibition, called "Discovering Cook's Collections".2

Recordings of the seven talks, or papers, were made available on the museum's web site as well as edited transcripts. I heard Paul Tapsell say, "I normally don't read papers because I normally don't write them. But the organisers said this might lead to publication, so that panicked me into writing something."

This book is the result. However, whilst three of the talks are provided almost verbatim, and two are expanded with useful additions, the other two have been reworked and re-titled into pieces with different thrusts. No explanation is provided, which must be confusing for anyone who attended the symposium. Intriguingly, the order of the talks / essays has also been changed. However, the conversion of talks into essays has meant the welcome addition of many footnotes and colour illustrations.

The book, but not the symposium, begins with "Looking Across the Beach - Both Ways" by Greg Dening. I found it to be the hardest essay to understand, and am at a loss to understand why it was moved from its original fourth position in the sequence of talks. Dening is, I think, trying to get us to look not only through the eyes of Cook and the other Europeans who looked across the beaches at the inhabitants of the islands they came across, but also from the perspective of the Islanders "looking across their beach" at the visitors.

He points out that "looking across the beach of the past, we often see ourselves: James Cook is us as we want to be in our ideals of science and discovery; James Cook is us as we want to be in our carefulness for less privileged peoples; James Cook is us as we want to be in courage and determination". But when the Islanders looked across the beach, they were "associating the godliness of these strangers from over the horizon in their ships with the godliness of their ancestors who came from across the horizon in their canoes."

Dening speaks about Tupaia and his role and achievements from Wallis's arrival at Tahiti in 1767, to his death in 1770 at Batavia. He points out that "Tupaia, as he travelled with Cook on the Endeavour, gave the great man lessons on the protocols he should obey in the encounter with island peoples. He urges Cook to show reverence and respect in his body postures when he arrives on the beach. He should bring gifts, not trade. Both wealth and power in the islands is in giving."

In chapter two Nigel Erskine writes about "Cook, the discoverer: George Forster's monument to Captain Cook", i.e. the commemorative piece for Captain Cook that Forster published in German in 1787 as "Cook, der Entdecker".3 After describing George's early life with his father Johann Reinhold Forster, their voyage with Cook and the controversy over the official publication about it, Erskine briefly covers the editing of the account of the Third Voyage by John Douglas, canon of Windsor. It leads to Erskine's explanation of why Forster wrote "an insightful cameo portrait of the great explorer which was unequalled in its day".

According to Erskine "Forster describes Cook's attention to detail and the care he took in implementing his plans for the voyages." Erskine is enthusiastic about "Forster's richly personal descriptions" and his "literary skills to transport his readers to experience the scene", including "colourful details of island life". Erskine points out that "Forster was keen to underline his own association with the great navigator" but feels "Forster is capable of insights unmatched among the many journal accounts of other Cook voyagers". Perhaps we have gained from Forster's targeting of "a German public who, for all their interest in the new discoveries, were relative novices in regard to such seafaring adventures".

In the next chapter Paul Turnbull writes about "The chief mourner's costume: religion and political change in the Society Islands, 1768-73". Known as a heva, this elaborate costume was worn during funerary ceremonies for high ranking people and examples were eagerly sought on Cook's expeditions. Turnbull takes nearly a third of the essay to reach the point at which he describes how Joseph Banks first encountered a heva and had its purposes "explained by Tupura'a, as best that gesture and limited understanding of each other's language allowed". Tupura'a "was to be chief mourner for a female relative". The heva in the Göttingen collection is illustrated and described as consisting "of a number of elaborately decorated parts, including white tapa robes, a feather and netting mantle, and a headpiece of pearl and turtle shell adorned with tail feathers of the saacred red tailed tropic bird". Banks's description of the ceremony is accompanied by that of James Morrison, after the Bounty mutiny and some comments of George Forster.

Turnbull speculates on why the Islanders were willing to part with heva, noting that European testimony "recorded during the course of the nineteenth century needs to be interpreted cautiously". However, it seems that they were exchanged for the red feathers brought to Tahiti on the Second Voyage as these "held out the promise of securing the favour of 'Oro", the war-god.

Adrienne Kaeppler expands on her talk "To attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract: rediscovering the Forster collections from Cook's second Pacific voyage". After explaining she had spent 30 years "on a journey to discover what had become of all the artefacts that had been collected during Cook's voyages" Kaeppler explained that in this essay she focuses on the ethnographic collections made by Georg and Reinhold Forster and their present locations in the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere.

The Forsters apparently acquired about 500 ethnographic artefacts "often collecting two or more of the same kind of artefact". However, most of "the objects were not distributed systematically. On the Forsters' return to Europe, many of the artefacts were given away or sold to people and institutions that were, or could be, useful to the Forsters financially and/or for reasons of prestige or influence." Kaeppler describes the collections she has tracked down in 14 museums across Europe, and how they got there.

Kaeppler then goes on to describe how "further information about the objects collected by the Forsters can be found in the five plates of artefacts that were published in the official account of Cook's second voyage" and which are reproduced in this book. They are of objects from New Zealand, Tonga, the Marquesas, New Hebrides and New Caledonia. She also points out that "the collection from Tonga could be described as a jewel among the treasure collected by the Forsters on the second voyage."

Lissant Bolton begins her essay, "Brushed with fame: museological investments in the Cook voyage collections", by explaining that Google found her 16 million sites when she typed Captain Cook into its search bar. Three years later, I got 3 million sites for Captain Cook and 14 million sites for Cook Captain!

Bolton then goes on to suggest "Cook's popular importance can be measured by another slightly bizarre criterion, the number of objects purportedly associated with his death. The Australian Museum has for many years held an arrow said to be made of Cook's leg bone. In response to pressure from the Captain Cook Society, the museum had the bone tested, and concluded in 2004 that the arrow was probably from the north-west coast of America, and the bone in question was most probably antler."

After a short discussion about celebrity endorsement, Bolton remarks that Cook's "name is often used to endorse exhibitions about the Pacific" and that had he "not died, but sailed home to England, his fame might have been diminished by the ordinariness of age and infirmity." She points out that Cook's voyages were "team efforts, in which many individuals collaborated on a single project. The products of the voyages, the written records, paintings and drawings, the collections, were all made by a group of people, not by Cook himself alone. Very commonly, however, Cook is made to stand for the group, and the others, the officers, seamen and men of science, are far less well known." Museums often feel the need to use Cook's name as a hook to attract the public to a special exhibition that may have little to do with him, and quotes some examples from her own experience. Although exhibitions may not last long, their catalogues can have a lasting significance. According to Bolton the "most notable among Cook catalogues is Kaeppler's own catalogue of her 1978 Bishop Museum exhibition of Cook voyage material".4 She comments "the 2006 exhibition of the Göttingen collection at the National Museum of Australia celebrates and, partly though its own catalogue,5 potentially alters Cook's popular profile in Australia."

Paul Tapsell's essay, "Foot prints in the sand: Banks' Maori Collection, Cook's first voyage 1768-1771", explores the role and significance of the presence in Endeavour of Tupaea (as his name is remembered and recorded by the Maori). Tapsell believes "Tupaea was more than some hapless Polynesian hitchhiker picked up on a whim by Banks in Tahiti." As Endeavour sailed around New Zealand "Banks and Cook remained uncomfortably dependant on Tupaea to negotiate the initial encounters of each landing", and when Cook returned on his Second Voyage "Maori greeted him again by shouting for Tupaea and grieved when told he was dead." I was particularly struck by Tapsell's suggestion that "like an uncharted rock just below the surface, his unrecognised influence continues to quietly ripple and shape our maps, history books and museums."

Tapsell wonders what happened to Tupaea's belongings after his death. It is only recently that his watercolour paintings have been attributed to him, so perhaps his other possessions were acquired by Banks. Tapsell discusses the dog-skin cloak worn by Banks in the painting by Benjamin West and, possibly, the same one given by Banks to Christ Church, Oxford. Such dog-skin cloaks were worn only by chiefs. Banks does not record how he obtained the cloak. So, perhaps this cloak and "the chiefly breast ornament and flute now properly attributed as part of Banks's Christ Church collection were originally Tupaea's personal possessions."

The final essay is Doreen Mellor's "Cook, his mission and Indigenous Australia: a perspective on consequence". In it she sweeps us from Cook's relationships with the Indigenous Australians at Botany Bay and Endeavour River, through the early exchanges between the Aboriginal Australians and the British, Dutch and French (especially at Port Jackson) to the "long history of taking Indigenous children away from their parents in order to socialise them as contributing, if menial, members of white society." She includes two interesting excerpts from 350 recorded interviews that reflected on the forced separation that has come to be known as the Stolen Generations. Cook is a symbol of the brutal legacy, and in Northern Australia "white people themselves are often referred to as Captain Cooks by Aboriginal people." Mellor writes that "Indigenous Australians have suffered as an ironic consequence of Cook's courage, his leadership qualities, his Yorkshire commonsense and his exceptional navigation and seamanship skills."

In a similar point to that made above by Bolton, although a symposium may not last long, a book about it can have a lasting significance. I have already seen one of these essays referred to in another book.6 I expect to see more. The organisers of the symposium are to be congratulated on turning the talks into papers for us all to enjoy. Take the opportunity to grab your copy and enjoy the richness of its contents.

Ian Boreham

  1. Cook's Log, page 27, vol. 29, no. 4 (2006).
  2. Cook's Log, page 18, vol. 29, no. 3 (2006).
  3. Cook's Log, page 16, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
  4. Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Artificial Curiosities: Being an exposition of native manufactures collected on the three Pacific voyages of Captain Cook. Bishop Museum Press. 1978.
  5. Cook's Pacific Encounters: The Cook-Forster Collection of the Georg-August University of Göttingen. National Museum of Australia. 2006.
  6. Kaeppler, Adrienne L. and Fleck, Robert (editors). James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. Thames and Hudson. 2009.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 46, volume 34, number 1 (2011).

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