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Discovering Cook's collections

On 28 July 2006 the Museum held a symposium to explore the significance of the Cook-Forster ethnographic collection of the University of Göttingen. The collection was acquired during Cook's three voyages to the Pacific, between 1768 and 1780. Speakers at the symposium explored the history of the collection, its contemporary importance to the descendants of the objects' makers, and its impact on the fields of anthropology, art and museology.

The Cook's Pacific Encounters exhibition, held at the National Museum of Australia from 1 July to 10 September 2006, showcased a selection of artefacts from the Cook-Forster collection. You can discover more about the Cook-Forster collection at the online exhibition, Cook's Pacific Encounters. A publication of the symposium papers will be forthcoming from NMA Press.

audio_w15 Listen to the symposium audio

Encounters with wondrous things: the historical significance of the Cook-Forster Collection

Paul Turnbull, Griffith University


The Cook–Forster collection of the Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany contains many objects of great artistry, ingenuity and spiritual significance. These objects provide vivid insights into the worlds of both European and Polynesian peoples during the second-half of the eighteenth century.

This talk explains how and why voyagers on James Cook's first two expeditions acquired these objects, and considers how important many of them were in shaping European perceptions of the peoples they met in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tahiti and Hawai'i. The talk also considers the meanings and values of some of the most remarkable pieces in the Cook-Forster Collection for the peoples who created them, and how they contribute to our understanding of Maori, Maohi and Kanaka Maoli cultures around the time they first encountered Europeans.


Paul Turnbull is Professor of History and Head of the School of Arts, Media and Culture at Griffith University in Brisbane. His research interests include the eighteenth century, notably in the area of voyaging and ethnographic encounter in Oceania. He has also written extensively on the procurement and scientific uses of the ancestral remains of Indigenous Australians, and is internationally known for his research on the theory and practice of history in networked digital media.

His projects include South Seas: Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific (1760-1800), an online resource on James Cook's momentous first Pacific voyage (1768-1771).

Georg Forster and the image of Captain Cook

Nigel Erskine, Australian National Maritime Museum 


In 1787 a German translation of the official account of James Cook's third voyage was published with an introductory essay and annotations by Georg Forster. Forster's experiences sailing with Cook during the second voyage and his scientific and literary interests placed him particularly well to write with some authority - a point he was quick to make when criticising the introduction to the official account written by Dr Douglas.

Forster's essay was published a year before Andrew Kippis' well-known biography The Life of Captain James Cook (1788), but has received scant attention. This paper appraises Georg Forster's image of Cook and his place in Cook research.


Nigel Erskine is curator of exploration at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. He has represented the museum in work at Newport, Rhode Island in the United States aimed at identifying the remains of Cook's Endeavour. In April 2005 he joined the HM Bark Endeavour replica on the final New Zealand to Sydney leg of its recent voyage home to Sydney. He has a lifetime interest in maritime history and archaeology and investigated the Bounty mutineer settlement at Pitcairn Island as the subject of his PhD in 1998. He was formerly director of the Norfolk Island Museum.

To attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract

Adrienne Kaeppler, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington DC


When James Cook announced that the aim of his first Pacific voyage was 'to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract' in the London Gazetteer on 18 August 1768, he was no doubt thinking of geographical discoveries. However, his new discoveries went far beyond geography. Many plants and animals were new discoveries to the western world, and much research has been carried out and collections made in these scientific disciplines since the eighteenth century.

Perhaps even more extraordinary were the discoveries of unknown peoples and cultural traditions - some 2000 artefacts were collected during Cook's three Pacific voyages. At first, museums and private collectors were eager to acquire some of these new 'curious' objects. But in the following generations many of these treasures lost their appeal and the 'Cook-voyage' association was often lost.

This talk recounts the research that went into reconstructing the ethnographic collections from Cook's voyages, and my continuing research on the importance of these early materials to both the descendants of their makers as well as to the disciplines of anthropology and art. It is also an update of my book Artificial Curiosities (1978).


Adrienne Kaeppler is curator of oceanic ethnology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. She has published widely on the arts of the Pacific, the ethnographic collections made on the three Pacific voyages of James Cook, and on issues in museology exploring the social, political, and ethical questions faced by museum curators in their roles as custodians of culture.

Her forthcoming book, Holophusicon: An 18th Century English Institution of Science, Curiosity, and Art, will be published by the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna. She contributed two essays to Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook/Forster Collection of the Georg August University of Gottingen, a three-volume set which was released in July 2006.

Looking across the beach: both ways

Greg Dening, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University


As we admire the cultural achievements of the Sea of Islands peoples and wonder a little at the skills of such polymaths as Johann Forster, this talk looks at the museums and theatre the Tahitian people made of the European strangers. The Maohi had their own polymath - Tupaia, priest, architect, way-finder, painter, map-maker of hundreds of islands that Cook was never able to discover. Tupaia and Forster are two heroes of mine in the encompassment of the Sea of Islands.


Greg Dening has written some dozen books on the cross-cultural history of the Pacific. After his retirement from the Max Crawford Chair of History at the University of Melbourne in 1991, he was an adjunct professor at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University where he conducted postgraduate workshops on the creative imagination in the presentation of scholarly knowledge. He wrote Beach Crossings: Voyaging across Times, Cultures and Self (2004).

Footprints in the sand: Banks' Maori collection, Cook's first voyage 1768-1771

Paul Tapsell, Auckland War Memorial Museum


Traditionally museums have focused their Maori collections according to values that more strongly reflect the colonial practice of acquisition and capture rather than the originating genealogical matrix of relationships. Since the 1980s the re-presenting of primitive Maori art objects as taonga has been indicative of the growing willingness of museums to begin engaging with descendants of source communities not unaccustomed to the metropolitan ethos of the 'other'.

In general, museum-held taonga have become re-humanised and approachable in a way that enables kin belonging to be positively expressed within legal parameters of ownership, thus benefiting all parties. Cook's first voyage taonga, however, seemed to have remained stratospherically detached from this trend. Commanding an unrivalled status of being both first and authentic, they have spurred decades of academic/curatorial discourse without reference to the quiet cross-generational musings of their descendants 12,000 miles away.

Using Joseph Banks collection from Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, this talk raises questions from a taonga perspective, and perhaps explains why Cook's first footsteps on New Zealand shores were not his last.


Paul Tapsell joined the Auckland War Memorial Museum as Director Maori - Tumuaki Maori in May 2000. He is a member of the Tapsell family who trace their descent from the main tribes of Te Arawa and who have strong genealogical affiliations throughout the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions.

From 1990 to 1994 Paul was curator of the Rotorua Museum. His PhD thesis in museum ethnography from Oxford University was titled 'Taonga: A Tribal Response to Museums'. He also lectures at the University of Auckland.

Cook, his mission and Indigenous Australia: a perspective on consequence

Doreen Mellor, National Library of Australia


This paper examines the life-changing consequences for Australian Indigenous peoples arising from Cook's first Pacific journey. His charting of the east coast of Australia and subsequent European settlement is discussed as the background to the story of the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, known as the Stolen Generations.


Doreen Mellor is an Indigenous Australian of Mamu/Ngadjonji heritage from the Atherton Tablelands of north Queensland and is currently director of development at the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Formerly project manager of the National Library's Bringing Them Home Oral History Project, she co-edited with Anna Haebich the associated major publication Many Voices: Reflections on Experiences of Indigenous Child Separation (2002).

Prior to her work in Canberra, Doreen was director of Flinders University Art Museum in Adelaide and served on many national and state boards and committees. She has prepared major reports on Indigenous arts and cultural issues and is editor and co-author with Terri Janke of Valuing Art, Respecting Culture: Protocols for Working with the Australian Indigenous Visual Arts and Craft Sector (2001).

Brushed with fame: museological investments in the Cook voyage collections

Lissant Bolton, British Museum


A number of different sectors of contemporary western society meet in museums: they are public institutions, often drawing on additional commercial funding, which employ academic curatorial staff to develop exhibitions for a broad non-academic audience, in consultation with Indigenous communities.

Captain Cook's fame has percolated into all these sectors. For many people, Cook is synonymous with the Pacific and his collections are brushed with his fame. While not everyone in those sectors views Cook favourably, it is very difficult to present the Pacific in a major public institution without reference to his voyaging and his collections.

This paper, while celebrating his collections, critically considers the nature and operation of Cook's fame in a museological context.


Lissant Bolton is section head of the Oceania department at the British Museum in London. She has been working in Vanuatu, South Pacific, since 1989 and is the author of Unfolding the Moon: Extending Kastom to Women in Vanuatu (2003). She has also published works on the anthropology of Vanuatu and on issues relating to museums and Indigenous peoples. In September 2006 she curated an exhibition for the British Museum called Power and Taboo: Sacred Objects from the Pacific, which focused on early collections from eastern Polynesia. She was formerly Pacific collection manager at the Australian Museum in Sydney.