Presenting history is an art which the National Museum of Australia does very well. Cook’s Pacific Encounters is much more than a static display of fascinating objects collected on Captain Cook’s three Pacific Ocean voyages.
In the Nation Focus Gallery on the lower floor there is a free photographic exhibition of Life in the Pacific: The 21st Century. In an educational project, largely funded by the State of Hawai’i and the US National Endowment for the Arts, to complement the Cook-Forster exhibition, digital cameras were given to 80 school students from many Pacific Islander communities to document their cultures.
Some show traditional arts and crafts, dance and music in modern contexts. Many attractive shots show the beauty and importance of island scenery and the environment, and there are photos by the young of their elders which enhance their sense of respect, as well as others of modern youth culture. Comments by the students emphasised how they had learned much more about the diversity and depth of their own societies. These pictures are certainly worth a visit.
But there’s more. On Sunday August 6, 12-3pm, an afternoon of Pacific Islander culture will be held in the Hall at the Museum. Free performances and activities feature Tahitian, Maori, Hawaiian, Torres Strait Islander and Tongan groups, making arts and crafts, performing dances, even demonstrating traditional weapons. Films to be shown include Whale Rider, and there will be a “conversation” on the maintenance of traditional culture with Dr Lissant Bolton from the British Museum, NMA curator Dr Ian Coates and Ralph Regenvanu, director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre..
Lissant Bolton will also speak on Friday this week, July 28, with other experts including Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, Doreen Mellor, an Indigenous Australian and Director of Development at the National Library of Australia, and Paul Tapsell, Director Maori – Tumuaki Maori at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The NMA and ANU’s Centre for Cross-Cultural Research are collaborating in this major symposium, Discovering Cook’s Collections.
A less intensive forum will also be presented for the general public the evening before, 6–7pm this Thursday, featuring Adrienne Kaeppler, Paul Tapsell and Lissant Bolton.
So the National Museum has put the Cook-Forster collection from the Georg-August University of Göttingen into the full context of today and of the period 1768 to 1780 when Cook, with secret instructions to find the expected Great South Land and claim it for Britain, encountered a wide range of Polynesian peoples.
Johann Reinhold Forster replaced Joseph Banks on Cook’s third voyage. Forster’s personality alienated most on board, but he and Swedish naturalist Andes Sparrman described some 500 new plants and 300 animals. An account by the ‘gentlemen skilled in natural history and drawing’ was prevented from being published by Lord Sandwich, leaving Cook’s detailed but largely navigational account as the version we know today.
It was Forster’s collection which the University of Göttingen bought on his death. Now we can see the beauty and the skilled workmanship of tools, ceremonial head-dresses, clothes, household objects and weapons, set among paintings made both by Europeans and Pacific Islanders of life and times 220 years ago.
Despite those who think Australian history began with Captain Cook, he knew very well that he was meeting ancient and impressive cultures. An important display shows the probable migration routes of the Polynesians, leaving the islands off South East Asia aound 1600BC, reaching the Marquesas Islands about 300BC. From there they went to Hawai’i, Easter Island and Raratonga, finally reaching New Zealand around 1000AD. But the winds and currents left Australia isolated.
It was actor Nigel Sutton as Robbie the Rat, who claims to have come with the First Fleet, who showed me, among a group of young children and their parents, how all this history is the story of real people leading real lives. He took us on an adventure where we saw the transit of Venus (a parent) between a small boy Earth and a smiling, indeed beaming, young girl Sun. A highlight was the beautifully back-lit display of fish hooks, hanging as if under water, from small to one so large “it would catch a shark”, so one boy reckoned.
In telling how Cook was killed, Robbie made clear how shaky historical truth can be when even people who were there told different and even conflicting stories. But he had no doubt about the 1769 surfing contest at Tahiti. For the adults, Robbie explained that Tahitian “massages” were popular among the sailors, too, “to relieve their back pain” – and such activities may well have been one cause of the conflict which arose in Cook’s last days on Hawai’i.
Now the school holidays are over, visitors will have to miss the art of Robbie the Rat, whose prodigious memory and ability to incorporate unsolicited commentary from excited children into the story was a joy to experience. At least make sure you include Life in the Pacific: The 21st Century, Discovering Cook’s Collections and the Pacific Festival if you can.
Discovering Cook’s Collections:
One-day Public Symposium
ANU Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at National Museum of Australia,
Visions Theatre, Friday July 28
Register at www.anu.edu.au/culture/cook_conference_july/cook_conference.php
Free Evening Public Forum
Visions Theatre, Thursday July 27, 6-7pm
Cook’s Pacific Encounters
Cook-Forster Exhibition from the Georg-August University of Göttingen
Until September 10
Adult: $10 Concession: $8 Child: $4 Family: $22
Life in the Pacific: The 21st Century
Free Photographic Exhibition
Nation Focus Gallery
Until September 10
Main Hall, Sunday August 6, 12-3pm
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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