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The British Museum

Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives

In this article, Mary McMahon, from the British Museum, describes the exhibition ‘Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives’.

The British Museum’s exhibition ‘Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives’ challenges traditional approaches to commemorative exhibitions on James Cook by introducing ways this historical figure is remembered in the Pacific.

The encounters between Pacific Islanders and Europeans during the voyages led by Cook are introduced through images and objects in the display, some of which were collected on the voyage, but the exhibition also includes 14 works by contemporary Pacific artists that represent Pacific perspectives on the memorialisation of this figure. Eight of these were acquired by the museum specifically for the display, significantly meaning that works offering a challenge to the traditional narrative are now a part of the Museum’s collection for the nation.

The exhibition is the result of collaboration between Pacific artists, researchers, curators and British Museum staff and is separated into seven different places where Cook is remembered or discussed to this day. Each section seeks to address ‘accepted truths’ about the voyages and their impact.

  • The section on Aotearoa/New Zealand considers the pivotal role of Tupaia in the encounters between Europeans and Māori, displacing Cook as at the centre of those interactions.

  • The Australia display shows that for some Cook stands for the invasion of this country by Europeans.

  • Vanuatu is shown to have been at the centre of numerous busy trade circuits before Cook’s ship had arrived, challenging the narrative that the European voyages brought trade to the Pacific.

  • The New Caledonia section highlights that the experience of Europeans on the islands was often brief and that the time they happened to arrive could have a big impact on how they were subsequently represented in Europe.

  • The Hawaii section addresses the events on the beach that led to Cook’s death, and subsequent debates about what really occurred.

  • The Tahiti section looks at its representation in Europe as an idyllic paradise and how that failed to reflect the complexities of relations on these islands.

  • Finally the section on Cook’s reputation in Britain seeks to counter the argument that Cook was an immediate hero for Britain, instead showing how his fame was constructed in response to other events and in order to support an imperial narrative.

The question of memorialisation of figures over time is directly addressed in the display through the inclusion of posters from the last three exhibitions on Cook held at the British Museum. The earliest uses an ethnographic image of Tahitian figures on a boat as its lead image, while the next reproduces an eighteenth-century artistic representation of Cook’s death that plays into the narrative of Cook as a benevolent explorer.

The final example is the poster for the current exhibition, for which the lead image is Cookie in the Cook Islands. In this painting Michel Tuffery, an artist of Samoan, Tahitian and Cook Islands descent, considers not only the impact of Cook on the Pacific, but also the impact of the Pacific on Cook.

The exhibition ‘Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives’ runs from 29 November 2018 to 9 August 2019 at the British Museum.

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Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces

National Maritime Museum