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To attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract

Paper presented by Adrienne Kaeppler, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washingon DC
Cook’s Pacific Encounters symposium, National Museum of Australia, 28 July 2006

ADRIENNE KAEPPLER: Good morning and thank you for inviting me to this very interesting symposium. In the London Gazetteer of 18 August 1768, Lieutenant James Cook noted that the aim of his first Pacific voyage was to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract. Five years later during Cook’s second voyage in December 1773, Johann Reinhold Forster, speaking for himself and ultimately his son Georg, noted that his motivation for joining the voyage was the ‘thirst for knowledge and the desire of discovering new animals and new plants for the benefit which should accrue to science and the additions to human knowledge in general’. That is, while Cook’s vision was originally focused on new geographic and astronomical knowledge, Forster was searching for biological and ultimately anthropological knowledge.

Although both Cook and the Forsters succeeded in making new discoveries, their successes do not necessarily lie in the visions of Cook, the Forsters or their patrons - but at least partly in the luck of being the right people in the right place at the right time. As far as Cook and the Admiralty were concerned, the purpose of the first voyage was to observe scientifically the transit of the planet Venus from the vantage point of Tahiti, only recently discovered for the Western world by his countryman Captain Samuel Wallis. The purpose of the second voyage was to search for the great southern continent that was believed to exist by geographers of the time. And the purpose of the third voyage was to search for a northern passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Strictly speaking, all three voyages might be considered failures: the observations of Venus were disappointing, a great southern continent was not recognised, and a northern passage between the two oceans was not found.

But as far as the Forsters were concerned, their purpose on the second voyage was to contribute to the scientific knowledge of the world through collecting and publication. Strictly speaking, there were problems here also - many of the new plants and animals had been previously discovered and collected during the first voyage by Banks and [Daniel] Solander. More significantly, the Forsters’ biological and anthropological specimens, although collected systematically, were scattered widely and there was no systematic publication of the botany, zoology, geology or anthropology by the Forsters or anyone else.

No official scientists were taken on the third voyage, but many biological and cultural objects were collected. A significant part of these went into the private museum of Sir Ashton Lever called the Holophusikon. This museum was transferred by lottery and eventually sold at auction in 1806 in more than 7000 lots. I’ve been doing research - we’ll call it detective work - on locating the objects and the specimens from this collection for many years. I will come back to this in the second part of my talk.

The geographic information and mapping was the most systematic and relevant to the British Admiralty and immediately published. But it some 200 years before the description, analysis and publication of many of the scientific specimens and artefacts was completed. Yet, as far as Pacific ethnography is concerned, it can still be concluded that the importance of these voyages have never been surpassed, either before Cook’s time or since. One should know however that this was not some great new British idea. The British had been preceded in the Pacific for more than two centuries by other European countries. It was advances in technology, navigation, medicine and scientific classification - as well as good luck - that were at least partly responsible for the success of the voyages, even though they did not answer all the questions that they set out to answer. Indeed, some 70 years later when the American Charles Wilkes set sail into the Pacific on the US Exploring Expedition, he too was looking for new discoveries and had much the same purpose as Cook’s second voyage; that is, to explore the South Polar Sea to find out if land or a continent existed there, to provide charts for safer navigation, to extend the boundaries of science and to promote trade.

Cook’s three voyages, and those of the following century, may have opened to the Western world entirely new vistas of geographic and scientific knowledge, but these new discoveries to the Europeans had been known to Pacific peoples for hundreds of years. Indeed, from the point of view of Pacific Islanders, the encounter has more aptly been described as ‘fatal impact’. Discovery and integration of knowledge operated in both directions. Cook and his companions had as much difficulty fitting their new knowledge into eighteenth century European views of the world as Pacific people had in fitting these strange white men and their curious ships into Indigenous Pacific world views.

Europeans were astounded by the natural and artificial curiosities they encountered, appreciative of the arts, appalled by some of the customs and, in the following century, full of zeal to change their religion, while Pacific peoples quickly accommodated their world views to incorporate these strange new white people and their jealous gods. Thus, in addition to European visions of Cook and the Forsters towards science, curiosity and art, there is another equally important vision - that of the Indigenous peoples and their own views of science, curiosity and art - and there has been a parallel line of enquiry, derived from oral traditions and memory, to incorporate into a broader view. To deal with all of these views in any systematic way would take longer than the time allotted to me, so I will focus on two aspects: the present-day distribution of the ethnographic collections made by Georg and Reinhold Forster, and tracing the collections of the Leverian Museum which in the late eighteenth century had the largest collection of Cook voyage ethnographic objects.

As early as the sixteenth century when Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch voyages ventured into the great unknown, their countrymen were curious about the natural history and geography of exotic places, as well as the varieties of people found there and their works. Scientists especially were eager to learn about the varieties of environments, plants, animals and peoples, as well as the natural and artificial curiosities made by gods and people. Books and visual images about these places were widely circulated, cabinets of curiosities grew, and naturalists wanted first-hand experiences in these distant places as well as collections for scientific study and classification.

An important point about the ethnographic collections from Cook’s voyages is that they form the baseline collections for several Polynesian islands. They mark the end of strictly Indigenous fabrication and from which change can be postulated. Of Cook’s three voyages, the collections made during the second voyage were the largest, and the collections made by the Forsters on that voyage were the most systematic. Nevertheless, collections by their very nature are selective, depending on the quality of contact as well as the length of time spent in an area, and of course complete statements about the botany, zoology or culture of any group visited on the voyages cannot be made or even suggested.

Georg and Reinhold Forster, as well as their scientific assistant Anders Sparrman, acquired a large number of ethnographic artefacts during their visits to the Pacific Islands. The Forsters apparently collected systematically, often collecting two or more of the same kind of artefact type, just as they collected several natural history specimens. However, the artefacts were not distributed systematically. On their return to Europe the artefacts were given away piecemeal and sold to people and institutions that were, or could be, useful to the Forsters financially and/or prestigiously. Indeed, the Forsters probably collected duplicate objects specifically with the idea of selling them. Several years earlier, when Reinhold and Georg Forster first arrived in London, they supported themselves by selling coins, fossils, idols, manuscripts and other artefacts they had brought back from when they were in Russia, and now they had even more exotic objects.

Thus, attempting to locate the entire collections made by the Forsters is primarily detective work. Here is a summary of what I have learned and located so far. The largest, widest ranging and most important collection made by the Forsters is in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. This collection of some 200 catalogue entries, amounting to some 220 objects, was given by Reinhold to the Ashmolean Museum in February 1776 after receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws in November 1775.

The next most important collection is in the Institute und Sammlung für Völkerkunde in Göttingen, Germany. This collection was sold to Göttingen in 1799, after Reinhold’s death, for 80 German taler. Its some 157 listed pieces were similar in scope and variety to the collection at Oxford and was apparently Forster’s own systematic collection that he had retained for himself, although it does not include many unique items because it had been diminished over the years by Forster giving away and selling pieces. Making a definitive list of the Forster collection has taken a great deal of work as it became part of the larger Cook voyage collection already in Göttingen that had been bought from George Humphrey in 1782. That is, the George Humphrey collection was in Göttingen before the Foster collection in 1782 and the Foster collection was purchased in 1799.

A third important Forster collection is in Wörlitz, Germany. This collection of 31 pieces is housed in its own special building in the gardens of Wörlitz Castle, a large eighteenth century English-style country house and gardens near Dessau, Germany. The objects were given to or purchased by Prince Leopold Frederich Franz, a friend and patron of the Forsters.

A fourth, and as yet unlocated, collection of 41 pieces was once in Mitau, Latvia, and may no longer exist. According to Otto Clemen in a letter from Reinhold and Georg Forster in Mitau, Baron Heinrich von Offenberg bought 41 pieces from the Forsters in 1779 and gave them to the Kurlandischen Gesellschaft für Literatur und Kunst in 1820. The 41 pieces were mainly clothing and ornaments from so-called Tahiti or Otaheite. This collection, however, may have been destroyed during the Second World War.

There are other collections that I won’t go over in detail. In the exhibition there is a diagram by Ian Coates trying to show the distribution of the collections made by the Forsters. You will see there are bits and pieces in many different museums, including the St Petersburg Kunstkammer in which there are three pieces of barkcloth attributed to JR Forster.

Finally, Georg Forster gave Tahitian barkcloth to Caroline Michaellis, the daughter of a Göttingen professor. Caroline had the cloth made into a ball gown, which was described by Caroline in January 1779 in a letter to her friend Julie von Studniz:

I received a large package of this cloth from Georg Forster with a very nice note. To keep my promise, I had made a shepherdess outfit like one sees at the gala night to wear to the ball. The material is white and the whole is decorated with blue ribbon and is, in truth, very pretty. But you would have to see how much this dress, when I wore it for the first time, was touched and looked at. I can still say at present that it is unique and inimitable, until now at least. It will perhaps stay so, because I believe that Forster has no more of this material which is necessary for such a test.

In the eighteenth century scientific classification was an important matter. Reinhold, a natural historian, was trained in the new Linnean methods, while Georg seems to have taken classification as a given and went on from there. Thus, when attempting to deal with their artefact collections, both Forsters found it necessary to classify them. But how? In the eighteenth century anthropology was not considered a separate scientific subject. At that time the study of human society and culture was largely an amalgam of observations made by navigators, missionaries and other travellers that had been processed by philosophers, historians and adventure writers, all of whom had distinct preconceptions about non-Western peoples that affected the selection and presentation of information about them. Although they studied natural history together, Reinhold did it consciously towards an end primarily as classification in the comparative tradition as well for as his own advancement, while Georg learned it as part of his upbringing. Thus, as more of an empiricist, the materials presented by Georg are much more useful to ethnography today and especially to Pacific Islanders to whom Reinhold’s opinion as to how they relate to the Ancient Greeks and other classical or Western cultures is largely irrelevant.

In the list and description of artefacts sent to Oxford, probably prepared by Georg, the materials are classified by area; whereas the list prepared from the Göttingen collection was arranged by artefact type, as is the listing in Wörlitz. The Sparrman collection in Stockholm is also published by artefact type. The artefact type lists were similar to the systematic organisations of plants and animals and could be prepared by a knowledgeable taxonomist, while the area listings required ethnographic knowledge and could only be accomplished by someone like Georg who had collected them or studied them.

The Oxford collection, because it was accompanied by a detailed listing of the artefacts by area, is the key for understanding all second-voyage collections and, indeed, the material culture of the islands visited during the second voyage. The important illustrations by [William] Hodges and by Georg Forster add additional information for identification, use and significance. When used together, the Forsters’ artefact collection, their writings about them and the illustrations form a treasure for ethnohistorical research for the islands visited.

A jewel in this second Cook voyage treasure is the collection from Tonga. Tahiti and New Zealand were visited during the first voyage. Baseline collections and information were collected and written about by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks and illustrated by Parkinson and others. The second voyage collections from the Marquesas, Easter Island, New Hebrides and New Caledonia were also extremely important, but contact was short and the collections small. From Tonga, however, the collections are large and varied. At least 150 pieces can be identified as being collected by the Forsters.

The other collection in the Göttingen museum was put together by George Humphrey, a London dealer in natural history who was also interested in shells. Nevertheless, he was also a dealer and collector of ethnographic objects and was known to be knowledgeable about them. The sale of Humphrey’s own private collection in 1779, which included 182 lots of ethnographic objects, had been forced upon him by his creditors, but this was before Cook’s ships had returned from their third voyage. We know that Humphrey went to Cook’s ships when they arrived after the second and third voyages and bought whatever he could from whomever he could. He also bought at sales and auctions, which can be traced by examining the annotated sale catalogues of eighteenth century auction houses.

Cook’s third voyage ships returned to England in August 1780, but it was not until several months later that Humphrey was commissioned to put together a collection for Göttingen. By this time, important pieces would be difficult to find. One of the important auctions that Humphrey attended was the sale of the collection of David Samwell. Samwell served as surgeon’s mate on the Resolution from February 1776 to August 1778, when he was transferred to the Discovery to serve as surgeon to replace William Anderson who had died on the voyage. Samwell’s collection was sold at auction in June 1781. In the only known annotated copy of the sale catalogue, Humphrey is shown to have bought a number of lots, and these purchases were certainly part of the collection that he sold to Göttingen. Many of the really important objects in the Göttingen collection are the ones that came from Humphrey and not the ones that came from the Forsters. I hope you will appreciate that Humphrey was a dealer who put this collection together for the King of England to be sold to Göttingen.

To move on to another important collection, I want to familiarise you with the Holophusikon, and Holophusikon is a Greek word which means ‘embracing all of nature’. This was a collection put together by Ashton Lever, a private collector who began his collection in Manchester, England, moved it to Leicester Square, London, in the early 1780s and then lost it by lottery - this is the way you disposed of things in the late eighteenth century in England. Ashton Lever tried to sell his collection at a very low price to the British Museum but Sir Joseph Banks, who was not a friend of his, said to the British Museum that there was nothing in it worth having. So the British Museum, unfortunately, did not take up the opportunity to obtain all of the wonderful pieces from his collection.

After Ashon Lever lost his collection by auction, it went to a Mr Parkinson and was then called the Leverian Museum. So the Holophusikon and the Leverian Museum are two stages of the same thing. Its new home was in Albion Place on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge in London. It was a very large collection of birds as well as some animals. It included not only Cook voyage collections but also collections from all over the world. It included a section of monkeys grotesquely set up. [shows image] This was called ‘The Scribe or The Clerk of the monkey room’. You can see from this contemporary photograph [shows image] that ‘The Scribe’ still exists and is in a small museum in south London called the Cuming Museum.

Ashton Lever was a man way ahead of his time. He had a number of illustrations made by a watercolour artist named Sarah Stone. There are four sketchbooks of her drawings altogether: two sketchbooks in the Bishop Museum, one in the Australian Museum, Sydney and another in the British Museum. The sketchbooks have been very important in trying to locate the objects that I was looking for, which were primarily the ethnographic objects from Cook’s voyages.

When Kalani’opu’u, the High Chief of the Island of Hawaii, visited Captain Cook on a ceremonial occasion, he brought a number of artefacts that were his gifts to Captain Cook, including a feather helmet that had been worn by Kalani’opu’u. Lying in the front of the canoe were six feather capes, including one through which we are going to follow its biography. The feather cape that was lying on the top actually went with Cook’s collection to the Leverian Museum. After Cook was murdered in Hawaii and after the third voyage, the materials from his collection did not go to the British Museum but to Sir Ashton Lever’s museum. This included the feathered cloak and helmet that were worn by Kalani’opu’u on that occasion.

This is a drawing done by Sarah Stone of that particular feather cloak. I’ll tell you a bit about the biography of the feather cloak and where it is now. The cloak was in the Leverian for some time. This next slide is a picture by [Johann] Zoffany of the death of Captain Cook wearing this feather cloak. The reason the cloak is there is that when artists in the late eighteenth century needed objects in which to clothe their people in their paintings, they often appear to have gone to the Leverian Museum and used such items as the feather cloak and other objects for their paintings. This painting by Zoffany depicts Captain Cook formed in the image of the Discobolos - the Discobolos being a famous Roman statue that was in the Townley collection in London.

What happened to the cloak after that? It was in the Leverian Museum and went to its new home in Blackfriars Bridge in around 1788. After Blackfriars Bridge it was sold at auction in 1806 to a man named Atkinson, who was another dealer in ethnographic artefacts. The cloak was in his collection for some time until it went into another museum, the museum of George Bullock who had a collection in a place in London called the Egyptian Hall. The museum in Egyptian Hall had a number of very important ethnographic artefacts which had come from earlier collections, including those from the Leverian Museum.

In the Leverian Museum there were 7800 lots of Cook related objects that were bought by many different people, and I have been trying to find the 7800 lots. You can see why it’s taken me some time to do this. I have found quite a number of them and I have just finished a book called Holophusikon that will be published by the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna . Why Vienna? Leopold von Fichtel from Vienna was one of the largest purchasers at the 1806 sale, and the 1806 sale was the beginning of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna. It is the only collection that retained its association with the Leverian Museum. All the others seem to have lost their association with the Leverian Museum along the way.

Some other slides show objects that were in the Leverian Museum and went to various different places, including Vienna. A very large collection was also purchased by a Mr Rowe who distributed these objects to two of his relatives: there was one large collection in Bridwell House, Devon and another collection in Widdicombe House, also in Devon. These two relatives of Mr Rowe had a number of pieces that are now very famous objects in the Cambridge collection as well as in a number of private collections throughout the world. These pieces have moved around from place to place as they have been purchased over and over again. You will now be able to read about them and see images of them in my book after it is published. I think we are about out of time.

QUESTION: One point that suddenly struck me was in relation to the loss of documentation, because in many ways what you have been showing, certainly with the Forsters, is that the collections were systematically done. There were records. And also through the ways in which people were illustrating and using the collections were producing context at that particular moment in time. But then it seems that that documentation became lost reasonably rapidly. I wonder whether in the other scientific collections, such as the plant collections, there’s the same history of loss of documentation. If there isn’t, why is it the case with artefacts that there’s been a history of people originally being systematic in their collections and treatment of them but then this whole period during which they somehow lost that systematic position?

ADRIENNE KAEPPLER: I will try to answer that question. The botanical specimens never lost their documentation. The botanical specimens went into places like the British Museum and were loved by the scientists, whereas even though the ethnographic artefacts were curious objects they weren’t really loved in the way that science could look at them. A lot of the ethnographic objects went into collections that I would characterise them as collections in search of a subject because there wasn’t really any subject to put them into. Although the Forsters were very good at doing things such as classification and so forth, most people were not interested in that. They liked to display them in their cabinets of curiosities but they didn’t put any of those little labels into those cabinets of curiosities so that when the person who collected them moved on to something else, died or gave them to their children, there simply was no original documentation. It’s not that they lost their documentation; it’s that it was never there to begin with.

Even when you look at the early Book of Presents, as it is called, of the British Museum it will say that ‘Mr Webber’, ‘Mr Banks’ - or whoever - ‘gave 18 objects’ but it doesn’t tell you what objects they are. So even in museums that one would expect to have documentation, the documentation is lacking. It’s only from places such as the Leverian Museum that have illustrations where you can move along with the illustrations as well as the sale catalogues and then put things together. However, I’m a stickler for details and I really want to have a paper trail if I am going to give them a Cook voyage provenance. I hope I answered your question.

QUESTION: Thanks for your very informative paper, Adrienne. I am interested in your comment that the most important parts of the collections came from Humphrey, the dealer, and not from Forster, the scientific collector. I am interested in why this might be. I note that some extent it was embedded in the lead-up to that in terms of the circumstances, but what does it reveal about the values and/or circumstances of each of these characters? What part does what Paul Turnbull referred to as ‘philosophical conjecture’ have in this answer?

ADRIENNE KAEPPLER: I don’t know about philosophical conjecture but, when I said that, I was talking about the artefacts that are on exhibition here in the National Museum of Australia, such as the Tahitian mourning costume and the feathered god image from Hawaii that both came from Humphrey and not from Forster. My point was that many of the significant pieces were actually in the Humphrey collection.

In various places the Forsters went into the villages because they were looking for botanical specimens and animals, if there were any. They diverted from the beach and went into the interior where they found villagers’ houses as well as people to talk to and to exchange artefacts with. What they exchanged with people in the villages were usually utilitarian objects, which are very important but are not the illustrious pieces. While several of the Tongan neck rests, which are beautiful structural pieces, came from the Forsters, others came from George Humphrey. That was my own take on it when I said that the really significant pieces came from Humphrey and not from the Forsters.

QUESTION: This follows on from the earlier question about the loss of documentation. I was wondering whether you could comment on the situation in eighteenth century England where so much of these discoveries were driven by a love of exotica and the value that these artefacts in the natural history and botanical specimens were given to be put into museums. Can you comment on what caused this to diminish and why these things may not have been seen to be important enough to keep a record of? What caused the change in cultural preferences with the loss of that love of exotica? ADRIENNE KAEPPLER: My conjecture is that people are always looking for something new. During the first voyage the things that were new were from New Zealand and Tahiti. During the second voyage things that were new were especially from Tonga. And then during the third voyage things especially from Hawaii were new. It then seems that as though more explorers went out into the Pacific and explored the north-west coast of America and as more and more things came in, the original objects that came from Cook’s voyages diminished in their curious nature because they were becoming more and more common place. It seems that ideas are a bit like a pendulum in that they go back and forth. Sometimes we’re interested in Cook, then we’re not; and maybe 20 years later we’re interested in Cook again, and then we’re not.

When I did my exhibition in Hawaii in 1978 called Artificial Curiosities, it was on the occasion of the bicentennial of the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook in 1778, so Cook’s objects were very important at that point. But from 1978-1979 until the present it seems to me that people haven’t been all that interested in Captain Cook. While there has been a little sustained group interested in the subject, the public doesn’t seem to be that interested. I think it’s just fashion: today we’re interested; tomorrow we find something new; and then we go back again.

QUESTION: You might have heard the director mention there had been a comment in the local press about some of the specimens mouldering in Göttingen. The material obviously presents very special challenges from a conservation point of view because a lot of the material is very volatile. Since parallel collections have existed in Göttingen and at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford for two centuries, would you care to comment on the relative state of conservation between the two collections?

ADRIENNE KAEPPLER: I’m not doing this just to be flip, but actually they are both in very good condition. The collections in Oxford have been on exhibit and loved by the curators there for many years. They had a wonderful exhibition in the 1970s, and there was conservation on those objects at that time. So if anything was found to have been soiled, they took care of it in the 1970s, and then they were put back into a different exhibition up on the second floor of the Pitt Rivers museum.

The collection in Göttingen had a slightly different history. After [Johann Friedrich] Blumenbach died – he was the one who was hoping to get the collection for Göttingen - most of the objects went into storage for a long time, which meant that they were not really loved for some time. They then went back on exhibition for a number of years. But everything deteriorates over time, so before the objects went to Hawaii a great deal of conservation work was done by a New Zealander, I believe. He did a lot of work and the conservation was very well done. This meant that when they travelled to Hawaii they were in very good condition and many of them are still in very good condition.

I like to tell this story about the Hawaiian feather helmet, because at one time they also had a feather cape in Göttingen. The feather cape and helmet were both stolen in 1932. After some time the helmet was found in the courtyard of a Berlin castle where it was being used for target practice by the Russian soldiers who were in that part of Berlin. They must have been bad shots, because they don’t seem to have hit the helmet. Today the feather helmet is in almost perfect condition considering that it was collected in 1778 or 1779. It is in very good condition with no moths or anything. Whereas if you go to Florence, Italy, where there is a Cook collection not in good condition, you’ll see feather capes where all of the feathers have been eaten away and there is only the background of the capes left. The objects in Göttingen and Pitt Rivers are in very good condition. I think they’ve really been loved all the time that they’ve been there.

Date published: 2 September 2008