Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook/Forster Collection of the George August University of Göttingen

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February 23, 2006 - May 14, 2006
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

This remarkable exhibition presents several hundred objects collected during the second and third Pacific Ocean voyages of Captain James Cook (1728-79). The show is organized by the museum in cooperation with the Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the George August University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, Germany. The collection is famous among anthropologists but little-known to the general public. The occasion of the Honolulu exhibition, which will present some 500 objects from Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tonga, Tahiti and the Society Islands, the Marquesas, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Hawai‘i, and the Northwest Coast of America, is the first time that the entire Göttingen collection is being shown in a public museum. Of the works in the exhibition, the largest numbers come from the Tongan, Tahitian, and Maori cultures, while 35 of the works come from Hawai‘i.

The Göttingen collections contain objects for daily use and ritual. The exhibition includes bracelets from New Hebrides, combs from New Caledonia, a club ‘akua-ta, kava bowls, weapons, and musical instruments from the Tongan Islands, a putona (shell trumpet) from the Marquesas, a heva (mourning dress) from Tahiti, and kapa and rare feather work from Hawai‘i. Other objects such as fish hooks, tattoo combs, musical instruments, baskets, weapons, and clothing were collected by the Forster father and son team.

This exhibition represents the most comprehensive presentation of 18th-century cultural objects from the Pacific every presented in Hawai‘i or the Pacific. These works, made largely before Cook’s contact with the indigenous cultures, are extraordinary for their inherent beauty, craftsmanship, and mana (spiritual power). The works are significant as well because they were given as gifts to or traded with Cook from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

The purpose of the exhibition is to celebrate the brilliant cultural and spiritual lives of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific as they existed prior to the first contact with Westerners. The exhibition explores the remarkable place of each of these cultures within the broader geographical and cultural context of the Pacific in the 1700s. As such, the show represents a rare opportunity for cross-cultural understanding that may not come to Hawai‘i again for many years.

It has been more than 200 years since Cook made three voyages through the Pacific Ocean between 1768 and 1779. He was killed on Feb. 14, 1779, at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai‘i Island during the third voyage. Cook was the son of an English farm laborer, who because of his excellent navigational skill, pursued a career in the Royal Navy. He was commissioned by the English Royal Society to lead the research exhibitions. Cook’s own notes on the collection as recorded in his journal entries, and the notes of others that accompanied him, provide key insights into how the collection was acquired.

Two German natural scientists, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, accompanied Cook on his second voyage, collecting and documenting many rare cultural objects. Because of the Forsters’ scientific connections with academic circles in Göttingen, and because Lower Saxony had connections to the English royal house, a donation of some 500 objects from Cook’s voyages were made to the Academic Museum of the George August University, which was founded in 1737. The English King George III, who also ruled Lower Saxony, made the donation. A second group of works in the Göttingen collection comprises objects collected by Reinhold Forster; these are also included in the exhibition.

The museum at Göttingen became the first known ethnographic museum in the world in 1770-71. The museum’s first director, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), was the first to use objects from the Pacific Ocean as authentic materials in his lectures. In ensuing years, the Cook/Forster Collection was visited and studied by such famous natural scientists as Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt. In the early 1900s, Göttingen gave a group of objects to the newly erected Lower Saxony State Museum in Hannover. Thanks to the generous cooperation of this museum, the two parts of the collection are reunited for the first time in many years in Honolulu. The museum has hired Gerry Barton, a conservator from New Zealand working in Germany, to provide appropriate conservation treatment of the collections.

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive education program of lectures, performances, films, and other related activities. The museum has published a full-color catalog to document the exhibited works, and a compact printed guide to the exhibition. The museum is deeply grateful to the Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Göttingen for sharing these remarkable works with the people of Hawai‘i. We are also grateful for the support of many indigenous cultural experts throughout the Pacific who have advised us in preparations for this rare experience.