James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library

Nothing to do this weekend?  Can get to London?  Go to the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library!  Honest! It’s brilliant.  I know this seems like part 2 of the “Reviews that are too late to be of much use” series, but even so, I’ve only just had a chance to get to see it and it really is worth viewing.

It’s 250 years since the Endeavour set sail from Plymouth for James Cook’s first voyage; hence, the exhibition, which brings together pictures, drawn and painted by naturalists and artists on the ships, maps, handwritten logbooks and journals, artefacts and videos exploring the voyages and their impact not only on the Europeans but also on the peoples of the Pacific then and now.  As such, it is a welcome example of how we can address our history, working with our fellow humans from around the planet.  Everyone emerges richer from the encounter.

To find out more about the exhibition click here.  Also, if you can’t make it to London before it closes on Tuesday 28 August 2018, you can explore some of the material on the James Cook: The Voyages website.

The British Library’s PACCAR Gallery is a subterranean gallery accessed via an anteroom on the ground floor to the left of the Library as you enter.  There is a lift as well as stairs.  The anteroom provides an introduction to the exhibition showing European and Oceania art and a globe with the three voyages marked on it. It is a good way in and demonstrates the idea that this is intended to be a global exhibition, showing all perspectives.

The space has been divided up so that there is a central hub that represents Great Britain and Europe from where the voyages started and where various participants communicated to the public about what they had found.  As you go through the Hub the first time, there is a Joshua Reynolds portrait of Joseph Banks who funded the scientists and artists on the first voyage.  He was a fine looking man with a look of the Ross Poldarks about him – right sort of period too.  This introduction provides context on the Enlightenment, which was driving the development of new ideas in philosophy and science.  It tries to show how science, trade and national identity intermingled in the late 18th Century Britain.  This is why these voyages of discovery were so significant in Britain.

Leading off the central hub are three winding galleries that take you along the route of the three voyages and show you pictures and journals created during each one and the related artefacts.  There are 2- to 3-minute films that give wider perspectives on the voyages.  There are high partitions along each voyage trail, cut in a meandering way at the top.  I think the pattern might be related to the route of the voyages around the Southern Seas.  That is quite poetic if it is but maybe a bit lost on the visitor since it is not explained.

One of the main reasons for the expeditions was the creation of maps.  It is difficult to remember that these regions of our world where members of my family now live were not mapped before Cook went down there.  He mapped New Zealand and the Eastern Coast of Australia.  The exhibition includes the maps that he drew.  They are amazing pieces of work, quite exquisite and painstaking, hand-drawn of course, and showing incredible but necessary detail.  Together with the drawings and paintings of places and flora and fauna, they show “art” where the purpose is most easily identified.  This is art as documentation of new discoveries.  Given that, it was amusing to see how in group scenes, in particular, the artists made the peoples of the Pacific look like Greek statues.  That wasn’t the case for individual portraits where the sitters look just that: individual, but for groups it was as if the conventions and training of their native world weighed too heavily on the artists.

The journals and log books are in horizontal glass cabinets and it can be hard to read them.  Cook’s, in particular, are written in a very small hand.  Others’ are quite florid and the script is difficult to decipher for us.  I noted that Joseph Banks’s journal was very neat.  Even if we can’t read them, there is normally an interpretation providing the key message of the page shown.  It is remarkable how compelling it is to see the log books and journals that these men actually wrote in themselves 250 years ago.

The exhibition presents information about the Polynesian high priest and navigator, Tupaia, who accompanied Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand and Australia.  One of the objections of the Polynesian people today is that the names of the Polynesian chiefs and many of the people drawn by the European artists are not known.  It is good that at least Tupaia’s name is known and that his contribution to the first voyage is acknowledged here.

Researchers are using the journals and logs of the expedition to ferret out information about the life of the peoples they met.  In this way, recently, evidence came to light that some of the pictures in the collection were created by Tupaia, not by Europeans.  His work is correctly attributed to him in this exhibition.  I thought some of his earlier work showed a simpler style than that of the European artists of the day.  They have a flatter perspective.  However, they often show greater detail and more accurate detail, especially where he is capturing costumes and buildings that have specific meaning to his people.

The contemporary journals also provide insights into the differences in culture between Europe and the Pacific.  For example, in Tahiti, during the first voyage, in his journal Joseph Banks wrote about a shooting challenge issued by one of the Europeans.  The Tahitians took it up but then there were difficulties: the Europeans assumed it would be a challenge as to accuracy, which they thought was more important and at which they were better; the Tahitians assumed it would be a challenge as to distance, which they thought was more important and at which they are better.

The voyages were costly in terms of people – several of the artists and scientists, including artist Sydney Parkinson, and Tupaia himself died of diseases as the ship was starting its return to Europe.  This puts into perspective voyages of discovery that we make today into space.

There are also the people killed in the misunderstandings between cultures.  James Cook was not a whole-hearted supporter of the idea of claiming the territories for the Crown.  His secret orders required him to do this although they do say that it should be with the consent of the inhabitants (without perhaps any thought of how to obtain meaningful consent when the parties have no common language nor frame of reference).  From his journals, it is clear that he was keen to develop good relationships with the people he met but also if that failed, he was still ready to use violence and superiority of arms to win out, despite his misgivings.  Expedition members died in these encounters and are named; most of the indigenous people who died were not named.

As you move between voyages, the central hub allows us a glimpse of how the British reacted to the discoveries that the explorers brought back.  They were interested and they were fascinated by Mai, the man from Tahiti who accompanied the second expedition back to Britain.  However, the artists presented their pictures in a European style so that they would be more easily accepted.  Just like James Cook himself, there were some who were unhappy with what we were doing in trying to control and take possession of these far territories.  Satirical writings were published expressing some of the concerns.  It struck me that this is similar to satire and criticism today of our government’s policies.  We even have demonstrations against wars.  All this activity indicates disquiet but doesn’t necessarily change what happens.  Do they absolve us of responsibility for what is done in our name?

The videos as you go around the exhibition are worth watching.  They are only 2 or 3 minutes long and they run on a loop so you don’t have to wait long to see the whole piece.  It is extremely interesting to see how the people of the Pacific feel about Cook.  He has long been feted as a hero of the British Empire and the discoverer of new lands.  The indigenous peoples see him as an invader and an enabler of subjugation and know that the lands had already been discovered.  There are movements in many of these places to remove statues of Cook, just as there are similar movements around the world for other men of the last few centuries.

The last summary video contained some good advice on this topic, from a ranger at the Northern Queensland site where Cook’s expedition landed during the first voyage.  Unfortunately, I thought the videos were online so I didn’t write down his name (yes, I acknowledge the irony and am going to go back to get the information before the exhibition closes).  He said that what happened in the past doesn’t matter because we cannot change it.  There is no use looking to blame those historical figures.  Instead, we need to acknowledge one another in the present and to work together to build the future.  For me, it was a hopeful ending to an enlightening exhibition.



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