James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific

28 August 2009 to 28 February 2010

The British navigator and explorer James Cook (1728–1779) is famous for having led three expeditions into the vast and uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean. He was the first to survey and map New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific islands, completing our modern image of the world and refuting once and for all the existence of a mythical Southern Continent.

An interdisciplinary presentation of the Age of Enlightenment
The exhibition focuses on the European perspective on the newly discovered worlds. In the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, it seeks to bring together and crosslink for the first time research results from a wide range of disciplines, such as natural history, maritime history, art history and early ethnology. Cook’s expeditions into the South Seas brought about a fundamental change in the way Europe saw the world and ushered in the dawn of modern Europe under the auspices of the Enlightenment belief in the power of progress.

It is to Cook and the naturalists, scholars and draughtsmen who took part in his three expeditions that Europeans owe the first systematic, reliable maps and the earliest comprehensive surveys of the geological structures and the flora and fauna of the Pacific islands. Similarly, the encounters with the people ‘on the other side of the world’ were described and documented in a degree of detail never before attempted.

Exhibits from all over the world recount Cook’s expeditions
A fascinating selection of some 550 objects and artefacts recount the pioneering voyages of James Cook and his international team of scientists. By the end of the 18th century the ethnographic and natural history objects collected from many different Pacific cultures during the three Cook voyages had been dispersed among collections all over Europe. The exhibition in Bonn brings them back together for the first time in over two hundred years. Another important first is the cooperation between the leading British ethnographic collections in Oxford, London and Cambridge and their counterparts on the Continent – above all the collections of Göttingen, Vienna and Bern – as well as other museums worldwide.

Many of the exquisite feather ornaments, wooden sculptures and other Oceanic artefacts are of incalculable value to art historians, since comparable objects have all but disappeared from the Pacific region. Made before the fateful encounter with the Europeans, these objects allow present-day Pacific cultures to assert or rediscover their own identity in today’s globalised world.

The ethnographic items are complemented by magnificent paintings and drawings by the artists accompanying Cook on his voyages. These works capture the unique mix of euphoria and inquisitiveness that characterised the explorers' encounter with the exotic world of the South Seas. Ship models, original sea charts and navigation instruments bring to life James Cook’s daring voyages into the unknown. Alongside spectacular loans from the National Maritime Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Library in London, the Art and Exhibition Hall is delighted to have secured the loan of items of Cook’s personal property from Australia.

Routes and destinations
As recommended by the Royal Society in London, the main destination of all three expeditions was the region of the Pacific known today as Polynesia (‘world of many islands’), but his voyages also took him to Antarctica and Alaska.

The exhibition architecture, which is based on the central islands and continents of the Pacific Ocean, invites visitors to follow Cook’s routes and to explore for themselves the different Oceanic cultures of the 18th century.

The primary purpose of the first voyage (1768–1771) was the observation of the transit of Venus from Tahiti’s Matavai Bay. Cook then proceeded to map New Zealand and parts of Australia with the help of the Tahitian navigator Tupaia. The botanists Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander – supported by the highly talented young painter Sydney Parkinson – made significant scientific discoveries and were the first Europeans to see a kangaroo.

On his second voyage (1772-1775) Cook was accompanied by the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg. They returned to Europe with a wealth of botanical and zoological findings as well as an extensive collection of ‘curiosities’, parts of which were to provide the starting point for the ethnological collection of the university of Göttingen. The prime goal of the second voyage was the quest for the hypothetical Southern Continent. Having circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, Cook finally put to rest the myth of the existence of Terra Australis Incognita. Cook visited Tonga, Vanuatu and Easter Island. The artist William Hodges captured key events in monumental oil paintings.

The third voyage (1776–1780) took Cook up north in search of the famed Northwest Passage and allowed him to make contact with the people along the coast of North America. The artist John Webber documented the voyage in painstaking detail. It was on this third and last voyage, on 14 February 1779, that Cook was killed in Hawaii under circumstances that have never been fully explained.

James Cook’s expeditions had an enormous cultural, religious, economic and political impact on the Southern Pacific region. Contact with the European colonial powers led to radical changes in the traditional ways of life of the Pacific peoples. Torn between duty and conscience, Cook was keenly aware of the fact that he and his companions were intruders. Almost inevitably, in the decades to follow, the encounters with Europeans resulted in the evangelisation and colonisation of indigenous peoples and their alienation and disenfranchisement. Georg Forster presciently commented, ‘It is tragic enough that all our discoveries have had to cost so many innocent people’s lives. As hard as that may have been for the small, uncivilised nations that were sought out by Europeans – it is really a mere nothing compared to the irreparable damage which the latter inflicted on the former by causing the downfall of their moral principles.’ Not until recently has the tide begun to turn thanks to indigenous self-discovery and the pursuit of political autonomy.

An exhibition of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, in cooperation with the Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology of Göttingen University, the Kunsthistorisches Museum – Museum of Ethnology, Vienna (10 May to 13 September 2010), and the Historisches Museum, Bern (7 October 2010 to 13 February 2011)



James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific
german edition:
276 pages with color illustrations
Format: 28 cm x 24 cm, paperback
Museum edition: 29 EUR
english edition : ISBN: 978-0-500-51516-7
Thames & Hudson


A guide is published in co-operation with epoc - Das Magazin für Archäologie und Geschichte.
Price: 3,50 EUR

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  1. Image from Exhibition Photo: Peter Oszvald © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH

Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

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