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Brushed with fame: museological investments in the Cook voyage collections
Paper presented by Lissant Bolton, British Museum
Cook’s Pacific Encounters symposium, National Museum of Australia, 28 July 2006
LISSANT BOLTON: This paper is about the popular views of Captain Cook and how I find myself negotiating them. A couple of weeks ago I typed ‘Captain Cook’ into the Google search bar and hit ‘enter’. Google responded by locating about 16 million sites in what it proudly told me was 0.18 seconds. I’m not sure that fame can be accurately measured by internet mentions, but the number of sites is impressive. I didn’t check them all to see if they were really about Captain Cook. Perhaps some of the sites refer to what the art historian Joan Kerr, who is sadly not with us any more, used to describe as ‘imaginary Cooks’ - the references, images and ideas about Cook which people have but which don’t accord with what we know about his life and achievement. He’s come to stand for a number of related things: the discovery of Australia and the Pacific, the cure for scurvy and the Enlightenment ideal of a man of science. But by no means all the ideas people have about him are accurate.
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, although the curators there didn’t really believe it. The Captain Cook Society put pressure on the museum and eventually the museum had the bone tested. The research concluded in 2004 that the arrow was probably from the north-west coast of America and the bone in question was most probably antler. The research process was written up in the New Scientist, and the final conclusion discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC website.
In 2003 an early nineteenth century gold-mounted walking stick sold at auction in Edinburgh for 153,000 pounds sterling. As Stephen Hooper discusses, in 2003 the normal price for such an object would be £500 or £800. This price was achieved because an engraved collar around the top of the stick read ‘Made of the spear which killed Captain Cook’. The Bishop Museum holds a swordfish dagger, which Adrienne Kaeppler commented has ‘a good claim to have been used in Cook’s death’. Several other objects have such claims attached to them, some of which involve a significant degree of improbability - including a Tongan club.
Hooper’s observation is that objects associated with Cook ‘appear to possess the quality of holy relics’ and that, as with other holy relics, the absence of any actual evidence of connection to Cook’s death doesn’t much diminish that status. This adds an odd angle to the infamous anthropological debate between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins about Cook’s death, which turns on the question of whether the Hawaiians who killed Cook did so because they saw him as being an incarnation of the god Lono. Divinity in this sense seems to dog Cook. One has only to think of the 1794 engraving depicting his apotheosis taken straight to heaven in clouds of glory to see that this kind of thinking has been attached to Cook in the European imagination almost from the beginning. In Polynesian thought, as Nicholas Thomas puts it, ‘divinity and humanity were always shaded together’. I was very interested in the definition of atwa as godliness that we heard earlier in the day - godliness is a very good way to describe it.
Contemporary Western popular opinion today does not deify Cook, but he towers above the other people who took part in the voyages, like the Forsters, and his popular reputation accords him a remarkable perfection of character. This is not the personification of a god but, as Nicholas Thomas also comments elsewhere, the personification of British imperial charity.
The last century has seen the rise and rise of what might be described as global celebrity culture. Fame has become a kind of capital which people and institutions use to achieve social and financial objectives. Celebrities endorse products and support causes, and even US presidents are not immune to making use of, or even being, celebrities to build their public legitimacy. The practices of celebrity endorsement are becoming so habitual that historical figures are beginning to be used in the same way. Even the British Museum, which with 5 million visitors annually hardly needs to tout for business, recently used the Queen of Sheba as a hook for an exhibition about ancient Yemen. The glamour of the name lent appeal to an otherwise abstruse topic. In the cut and thrust of contemporary media, known names attract attention.
For museums with Pacific and Australian collections, Captain Cook’s fame has a particular resonance and a particular utility. His name is often used to endorse exhibitions about the Pacific. It seems to me that this is not a straightforward or simple usage; rather the relationship between Captain Cook, his collections and his reputation has some complex interdependencies.
In this paper I want to discuss these relationships in the specific context of museums. This is not, in any real sense, a paper about Captain Cook at all. His achievements and the marvellous collections and records made on his voyages all largely pass this paper by. Those imaginary Cooks that interested Joan Kerr are more the subject of this paper than the real man and his collections.
The proliferation of objects purportedly connected to Cook’s death reflects on the significance of that event in the popular imagination. Had he not died but sailed home to England, his fame might have been diminished by the ordinariness of age and infirmity. As Bernard Smith observes, his death propels his memory far beyond the level of mere fame to those exalted realms of the human imagination where only saints, heroes and martyrs dwell.
It was also propelled there by what Smith describes as a conscious heroising process by academicians, poets and artists whose imaginations had been gripped by the magnitude of his achievement. This involved a focus on Cook as a hero of the Enlightenment, as a plain man of science whose explorations respected the rights of humanity. Apotheosis, the transformation of heroes into gods, was, Smith says, ‘a popular visual trope by which the Enlightenment sought to venerate famous men’. If the de Loutherbourg engraving is part of a wider tradition, the apotheosis of Cook seems to have been more sustained than that of other Enlightenment heroes.
The popular understanding of historical figures changes over time as public values change. Cook’s status today is somewhat different. In Australia, where everybody learns about him in primary school, the name is familiar; the achievements perhaps less well understood.
Earlier this year, the British Museum undertook some audience research in relation to a Polynesian exhibition which opens this September. The research tested the public’s understanding of a series of words and phrases - not, I hasten to say, chosen by me. One of them was Captain Cook. Twenty-five randomly selected visitors were asked what the name meant to them. Only 32 per cent of them knew who Captain Cook was, with a further similar group having some roughly correct ideas about him. Many British Museum visitors are tourists. It was predominantly ‘English as a first language’ visitors who knew who Cook was. Most who did associated him with school, history and books. None of them mentioned gods.
Fame tends to have a simplifying effect. Specifically, it tends to attach to individuals rather than groups. These days, the machinery of the media focuses less on groups than on single individuals, even where they are in fact a part of a team of footballers say or a family like the [British] royal family. One of the notable features of Cook’s public fame has always been the focus on him as an individual. I don’t mean the scholarship; I mean the popular opinion.
Undoubtedly a leader and a man of many striking personal qualities, his 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. And in listening to the papers about Tupaia, we have had that brought very clearly home to us today. Very commonly, however, Cook is made to stand for the group and the others - the officers, seamen, men of science - are far less well known. The collections made on his voyages are commonly described as Cook Collections, while in fact the objects were acquired by a whole range of expedition members for a whole range of diverse reasons. Indeed, not many objects can be definitively associated with Cook himself.
This process of simplification also means that Cook is very commonly made to stand for all early European exploration in the Pacific, as we’ve also just heard. It’s widely believed he was the first European to sail the Pacific. It’s widely believed that he was the European discoverer of most island groups in the ocean, and the discoverer of the continent of Australia as well. These mythologies about Cook occur in the Pacific, too. In Melanesia, perhaps as a result of United Kingdom and Australian primary school curricula used there, he is widely regarded as the first man who visited the islands. He is more trope than history, a way of talking about the coming of white people rather than a matter of specific events. I have several times heard people from diverse islands in Vanuatu talk about the time Captain Cook came ashore or came to this place, whether or not in fact Cook ever landed on the island in question. The Papua New Guinea artist Mathius Kuage painted a number of pictures of Cook in his ship visiting Papua New Guinea, although the Endeavour made only one brief visit to the coast of what is now West Papua.
One of the functions attributed to contemporary celebrities is that of the ‘familiar stranger’, a figure not physically to hand who seems yet somehow present. People have what Graeme Turner describes as para-social relations with celebrities; that is, interactions which occur across a significant social distance with people we don’t know. It strikes me that this status, this identification as a familiar stranger, is a crucial aspect of the way in which people, in thinking about the Pacific, often reach for the idea of Captain Cook. A known figure, he and his travels across the ocean can act as a kind of intermediary with the far different societies he encountered there. His reputed steady reasonableness mediates their strangeness for Western public.
This morning I was asked by the National Museum’s PR people to do a live radio interview with 666, which is the Canberra ABC radio popular network, and I was invited to do this in my status as ‘a Canberra girl made good’ - an identification on all three terms inaccurate. But what was interesting to me about that was that they chose me instead of all of my esteemed co-speakers because I was ‘a Canberra girl’ and therefore able to mediate the strangeness of this conference for the listening public. I tried to do my best. I think that’s what people use Captain Cook for a lot - that same process. Cook is the familiar stranger who can introduce us to the whole Pacific. For Melanesians like Kuage, he is perhaps also the familiar stranger who heralds the transformations of the European incursion.
Cook’s popular fame today is partly constructed through and by museums, and through the collections made on his voyages. The ways in which he is presented in exhibitions is a function of the nature of museums themselves - and I’m just going to take a small moment to tell you a little about that - of their essentially hybrid identity. Museums stand at an intersection between many different professions and perspectives. Public institutions which draw on additional commercial funding, museums employ academics, Indigenous representatives, educators, conservators, designers and administrators and ask them to jointly deliver accessible accounts of interesting subjects.
This hybridity creates a fertile environment, but not necessarily an easy one. As anyone who has ever worked in a museum knows, museums are quite often a ferment of personalities, convictions, disputes and politics. An exhibition is very commonly a compromise, a negotiated settlement of deeply felt and opposing convictions held by people with diverse specialisations and priorities. This is all the more the case because the role and purpose of museums has changed, especially in the last 50 years.
If in the 1950s and 1960s museums offered an educational opportunity to their visitors and expected them to measure the value of the experience by what they learnt, museums are now called upon to compete with many other forms of entertainment and to measure their overall success by the number of their visitors. This increasing pressure to measure success in visitor numbers adds a new pressure. Marketing, audience evaluation and commercial considerations are more and more influential in determining what an exhibition covers. Front-end evaluation, which seeks to assess before the event what its likely impact will be, poses a particular problem to curators. It is hard to get a good response from a prospective public to an exhibition on an unfamiliar topic, ancient Yemen perhaps. Museums frequently use something familiar to draw people in, hoping then to lead them on to enjoy a less well-known subject. Dinosaurs, mummies and celebrities like the Queen of Sheba are all used by museums to attract public interest.
In fact, this is the process of establishing value. Collecting has been succinctly defined as ‘the selecting, gathering and keeping of objects of subjective value’. Exhibiting collections is the process of obtaining wider agreement to that attribution of subjective value. Making a collection is usually the responsibility of curators. Their decisions often rest on academic understandings of the collection subject area - of Australian history say or of ornithology. Subjective value in museum collection making is generally constituted by the agreed principles of the relevant discipline. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, exhibiting a collection requires a quite different construction of value, which is to say that enough members of the public have to agree, or have to be persuaded, that the objects on display are worth seeing to make the exhibition feasible.
For art galleries, the value of a collection is created at least in part by institutional inclusion. The very fact that an art gallery chooses to display a painting or other work of art attributes value to it, and public interest often responds to that. Other museums need to persuade visitors to the value of the objects they exhibit. To do that, there must first be agreement within the institution about the nature of the objects’ value and then the terms on which the public is enjoined to value them have to be developed and agreed. This is something which is sometimes achieved merely by assertion, by using exhibition titles like ‘Masterpieces’ or ‘Treasures’ and by writing marketing copy which uses words like ‘unique’ and ‘unparalleled’. Similarly, a museum may trade on the idea that something has never been displayed before and may never be again. A recent exhibition about Persia at the British Museum was titled ‘Forgotten Empire’ not only to signal this kind of rarity but also to give permission to the public to feel ignorant about the subject matter of the display.
Captain Cook’s fame is the hook which managers, educators and publicists all reach for when Pacific collections are mentioned. This use of celebrity status is one way in which I can understand the frequent reference to Cook in any exhibition about the Pacific. I am currently exhibiting a temporary exhibition about Eastern Polynesia for the British Museum, which is the one that opens in September. This exhibition called Power and Taboo - and the marketing people chose that title - is not about voyages or encounters at all, but is about Polynesian cosmology. Specifically, it’s about the way in which Polynesians manage the powerful presence of many gods in their daily environment through practices and concepts summed in the word Tapu or kapu, which is rendered in English as ‘taboo’. The exhibition exhibits objects collected and images made between 1760 and 1860, including resources from Cook’s voyages, but including far more material collected by other early voyagers and settlers, like the London Missionary Society. Over and over and over again I have been asked by people working in interpretation, editing, marketing, management and elsewhere to frame the exhibition in terms of Captain Cook and especially to mention Captain Cook in the introductory panel - I struck it out.
The pressure to name Cook in the opening panels of the exhibition also results from a sense that the Pacific cultures are unfamiliar territory for many people. What might be described as the Queen of Sheba phenomenon can in this sense be understood as a desire to find a known point of entry into material which might otherwise seem strange and alien. This is the familiar stranger who provides the point of entry into an unknown context. Cook stands for eighteenth century Pacific culture in the same way that Livingstone stands for the dark heart of Africa, whatever that might mean. Cook is also a drawcard in and of himself, a hero not quite deified who represents much of which Britain is proud.
The British Museum did name Cook in a 1998 temporary exhibition about Maori culture, which was developed in consultation with Maori advisers. The exhibition included a number of objects collected on the voyages, and the introductory panel to the exhibition referred both to Cook and to items donated by an early governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey. John Bevan Ford, a Maori artist who advised the museum on the exhibition, wrote a letter to the curator. He said:
Captain Cook was an English and European navigator of great renown, but he is not a Maori of high standing. To highlight him or his collection in an exhibition of Maori works is to subtly change the emphasis away from a Maori event towards the European perspective.
Bevan Ford made his own gesture of appropriation, and a blessing, when as an artist in residence at the British Museum in connection with this same exhibition, he produced this image of a Maori cloak floating protectively over the former Museum of Mankind, an offshoot of the British Museum, and the British Museum itself. In the Thames, as an answer to Cook’s voyages in the Pacific, he has placed the canoe of the Polynesian voyager Kupe.
Not many museum objects are internationally famous. The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most globally well known. Some have a national notoriety; Phar Lap seems to be quite widely known in Australia. Most museums operate with a concept of iconic objects; that is, with items which have an individual identity and are considered worthy of special display techniques which surround them with a halo of importance. Thus, for example, the British Museum treats its Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, stone statue as an iconic object and displays it in a key location.
In her discussion of the Kula trade networks in south-eastern Papua New Guinea, Nancy Munn makes some interesting observations about the fame of objects. Kula is a trade network in which objects and resources are traded over a long distance from small island to small island in a network that forms a ring or circle. The most valuable items, shell arm-rings and necklaces, are traded around this circular network by means of complex, long-distance arrangements. The necklaces move clockwise around the trading route, the arm-rings move anticlockwise and they are traded against each other. Other objects are traded beside them, but it is the shell valuables which hold the interest of the traders.
This is the point: these arm-rings and necklaces are ranked in value. Many arm-rings and necklaces progress around the trade network, but certain among them are valued more highly and become more sought after. The acquisition of a famous valuable brings fame to its owner. And the more famous a man becomes, the more he is able to transact the most famous valuables which, in passing through his hands, make him part of their particular histories. Munn’s observation is that the status of the shells depends on naming. The lowest ranking shells have no names. Ranked above them are shells with generic, rather than personal, names. If these rise in value as they circulate, they will be given more specific personal names, although initially they may be shared by several objects - several objects have the same name. At the very highest level are the most famous shells which have unique names, this uniqueness being a mark of their high rank. The unknown shells can only be discussed where they are present. When they move through the trade network they are lost, because without those names they cannot be tracked as they pass from hand to hand. They tend to disappear and be forgotten, but at the other end of the ranking are the most famous shells which are known and talked about all over the trade network.
I contend that a similar process happens to museum objects. The most famous objects have personal names which are unique to the object and widely known. The British Museum Rapa Nui Easter Island statue I mentioned earlier has a personal name given it by islanders when it was collected - Hoa Hakananai’a. The name was engraved on the plinths on which it stands at the British Museum, and the name has become well known. Despite this name, the statue is known both within and without the museum, including on Easter Island, and books published about it have that name as their title.
The Mona Lisa and Phar Lap also have a uniquely named identity of this kind, and one can think of several other examples. Sometimes objects have names which identify them to a holding institution, the Göttingen mourners costume referring to objects of which there may be other examples in other institutions. Then there are names which are generic, in that they can be applied to a number of objects, the Lewis Chessmen, the Cook collections. Lastly, there are the many objects which have no personal name at all but only an identifying number, remembered by no-one.
The parallel with Kula valuables is not precise in every respect, but it highlights the way in which naming an object facilitates its renown. Without a personal name, objects are rarely identified in public consciousness. Naming facilitates fame. It grants objects individuality and, as I have suggested earlier, individuality is a critical aspect of the simplifying construction of fame and celebrity. As with Kula shells, so with museum collections, an object with a personal name is in a position to be much more highly valued. The interesting thing about the Cook voyage collections is that I cannot think of, perhaps Adrienne can correct me, a single object from within them that has achieved the highest ranking of individual name status. They may have a particular name within the holding institution’s own ranking system, but it is their generic name, Cook Collection, which grants them status.
Individual names for objects facilitate an interest in them which enables them to be known about in depth. The books published about Hoa Hakananai’a, for example, draw together all the information that can be tracked down about that statue. More generic names have a limiting effect, especially where the generic name relates to the collector, then there is a danger that the object can become more famous for who collected it than for its longer history. This is the case of being brushed with fame, of being more famous for an association than for a whole identity.
As several people have said today, the original search for Cook voyage material was initiated by Adrienne Kaeppler searching for Tongan material, who found that there was no corpus of material that she could use that was of undoubted Cook provenance. And as Adrienne herself said earlier today, the series of donations of Cook voyage material made to the British Museum, which included presentations by the Lords of the Admiralty in 1771 and 1775, by Joseph Banks in 1778 and 1780, and by sundry other members of the voyages’ crews in 1780, none of those were listed individually and the museum did not individually object number in those far-off days. Now it is difficult to identify which of the objects acquired in the eighteenth century came from those voyages. Adrienne’s research, and that of several of my colleagues, now securely identifies only about 98 objects.
So it is generally the association with the voyages which gives these objects their primary identity. This Marquesan fan from the Göttingen collection, which must have been collected on Cook’s second voyage, was plaited by a woman for someone, perhaps for her husband. If so, he may have carried it as a mark of his status as a warrior or leader, as here in an 1804 portrait of the Marquesan warrior Moarti. The personal history of the fan - who made it, who owned it - is no longer known. We do have Forster’s comment dated 9 April 1774 that ‘the weather was exceedingly hot this day, for which reason many of the inhabitants made use of large fans to cool themselves, of which they sold us a great number’. The whole history of the fan includes that moment of collection, but there is far more to the fan than that. It could be exhibited without any reference at all to that hot day, but rather to illustrate ideas about status and hierarchy in the Marquesan islands. It could be exhibited for many other reasons: it could be exhibited in comparison to other Marquesan fans or to understand plaiting techniques, or to investigate questions about style and form of objects across the whole Marquesan group.
If we now attribute fame to the objects collected on Cook’s voyages, this has a great deal to do with the extent to which these objects reflect to us those moments of first encounter - the beaches which Greg Dening discusses. But as it has often been observed, the members of those expeditions did not initially hold these items in high value and, as is quoted in the exhibition itself, Cook wrote about the prevailing passion for curiosities on the Resolution but commented how commonly things gathered in one place were given away at the next. This, together with what is destroyed on board after the owners are tired with looking at them, prevents any considerable increase in the number of objects on the ship.
Just to rehearse something we’ve already heard about today but to make a slightly different comment, there was in fact a trade of curiosities for curiosities, and certain kinds of objects proved to have a particular value across the Pacific. Red feathers were particularly useful as trade goods. Bands of red feathers from Tonga acquired that money-like character in transactions, and islanders in places like the Marquesas were willing to trade things they themselves considered valuable for them. That same hot day they bought the fans, Georg Forster observes that ‘the Marquesans were not interested in trading for nails or beads, although ribbon, cloth and other trifles were more agreeable. However, he says some large hogs were purchased for pieces of the mulberry bark covered with red feathers, which we had obtained at the island of Amsterdam, or Tonga Taboo’.
This trade of Pacific objects within the Pacific had effects, although it is not now possible to track many of them. One such possible effect can be seen in this small female figure from the Society Islands now in the British Museum. The original collection records for the figure are lost, although it is known to date from the eighteenth century. The cap and skirt the figure wears are made from Tongan feathered basketry, something like the feathered barkcloths traded for pigs in the Marquesas. Hooper suggests that this very basketry may have been brought to the Society Islands by Cook’s ships. At the time, it was the feathers and the basketry, not the ship on which it travels, which was important to the figure’s maker. Now the suggestion that the figure may have this indirect association with Cook, whether or not it can be proved, greatly enhances its value. If I had to value it for a loan, the price would go up because of that. The brush with fame is important.
As we’ve discussed quite a lot, once they reached London at the end of each voyage, the voyage collections were received with tremendous interest. Indeed, the Cook voyage collections are credited with establishing public interest in ethnographic collections in London, precisely because they could be personalised to the expeditions and to Cook’s death. The South Seas Room at the British Museum, first planned in 1775, became a major public draw. The former BM curator John Mack comments, ‘It is perhaps strange that the last part of the globe to become known to the Western world should have been the first in the British Museum to be set up with a specific geographic and cultural reference’, and attributes the installation of that room to the influence of Joseph Banks who was a long time British Museum trustee.
Ironically, I now make strategic reference to the tremendous popularity of the South Seas Room, which was sustained well into the nineteenth century, in making arguments for the installation of a new Pacific gallery at the British Museum. In London, at any rate, the importance of the Cook voyage collections for Pacific anthropology seems always to have been secondary to their importance in connection to Cook himself. If an association with Cook adds to an object’s value or status in museum terms, the deployment of those objects in exhibitions both contributes to and also alters Cook’s fame. Joe Moran argues for literary celebrities that the literary texts themselves play a part in the system of celebrity production because of the way they address, mediate and complement already existing meanings. The literary celebrity is at least partly produced by their own writing, and each new piece of writing adds to and interacts with those that have gone before. The analogy with exhibitions is not exact, but nevertheless each new deployment of Cook voyage material in an exhibition modifies popular understandings of Cook. Exhibitions have a shorter term impact than books, but they can bring about changes in popular perception.
The exhibition this conference celebrates both adds to and alters Cook’s popular profile in Australia, and I think it’s tremendously interesting how much interest has been shown in this exhibition and how many people are coming to Canberra to see it. Specifically, the exhibition shifts the association between Cook and discovery of the east coast of Australia by contextualising that in terms of his wider engagement with the Pacific. In fact, Adrienne Kaeppler’s long labours in tracking down Cook voyage material in museums around the world has contributed a significant new dimension to Cook’s celebrity. The objects provide a kind of material evidence of those actual encounters. They lend substance to his story, and provide a means to retell it over and over.
Celebrity almost always brings with it a negative dimension: the detractors, the diminishers, the bringers-down of tall poppies. Cook has always had such antagonists. Georg Forster, indeed, was one of the first to express a genuine concern at the outcome of Cook’s voyages, doubting the value to the islands of the contact and suggesting they would have been better off remaining unknown to Europe and its restless inhabitants. A negative version of Cook’s encounter with Hawaiians, written up by the American missionary Sheldon Dibble in the 1830s, is generally seen to have produced a strong anti-Cook sentiment in Hawaii at that time, which has continued to the present. Bernard Smith observed, ‘It will always be difficult for native historians of the Pacific to draw a fine line between Cook the individual and the culture their ancestors inherited in the wake of his vessels.’
There are also those who point to Cook’s failings and omissions. Not all his decisions were wise and just, especially on the third voyage when he seems to have become increasingly irascible and inconsistent. Those who point to these intimations of his humanity are themselves sometimes criticised for unjustly tarnishing his burnished image. These debates roll on and on. Last Saturday English newspaper Daily Telegraph published an article about how difficult it is now to visit the site of Cook’s death, and in that article discussed the lasting effect of Sheldon Dibble’s intervention in Hawaii. The Telegraph quoted the Honolulu Star Bulletin as saying ‘the book was a transparent attempt to poison the generally warm relationship between Hawaiians and Britons’.
Several discussions of the phenomenon of celebrity argue that the celebrity has a role as a location for the interrogation and elaboration of cultural identity. Cook acts as such a key location for interrogation and elaboration. If he stood in the past for the valour of British Enlightenment achievement, he now often stands for the massive shift which European incursion brought to the Pacific. In Australia perhaps, he stands for an Englishness which multiculturalism is quick to reject. His voyage collections remind us by contrast of the specificity of these encounters, the particularities of interaction and exchange that were sometimes limited to the matter of only a few days. At the same time, as with the small Society Islands figure in the Tongan dress, objects can remind us of the ramifications and offshoots of these specific encounters. Cook can thus stand for multiple effects, the multiple possibilities which we cling to as a characteristic of contemporary cultural identity.
Both detractors and admirers make use of Cook to understand the present as well as the past, and the collections manipulated into exhibitions enable them and us to explore and present those understandings. Joan Kerr always wanted to curate an exhibition about imaginary Cooks, but it may be that all exhibitions about Cook, even the most factually accurate, are in some sense imaginary constructions. The Samoan-New Zealand artist Michel Tuffery has recently made a number of images of Cook wearing moko, facial tattoos. The images appropriate Cook as a Maori of high standing. They make him a familiar stranger of another kind.
If he began as an Englishman, a plain and modest man, and became in several senses a god, this most recent metamorphosis is unlikely to be the last. And museums, in manipulating his voyage collections and thus his image, will continue to contribute to the construction and reconstruction of that further identity. Thank you.
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Date published: 2 September 2008