Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2019
Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives
British Museum, London, November 29, 2018–August 4, 2019
Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives, installation view, British Museum, London, 2018–19 (center: Tahitian chief mourner's costume) (photograph by the author)

“Understandings of history are rarely agreed and always shifting,” began the wall text that opened the British Museum’s Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives, in an effort to signal the exhibition’s investigation into the fraught legacy of James Cook (1728–1779), explorer and British Royal Navy captain. Rather than rehearsing well-known and tired narratives of Captain Cook as the heroic explorer and navigator, this exhibition attempted to reframe Cook’s legacy from the perspective of the people and places he impacted with his Pacific voyages. Thus, historical artifacts from Cook’s voyages were juxtaposed with artworks by contemporary Pacific Islanders that reveal their perspectives on his legacy. In so doing, the show offered a much-needed postcolonial examination of Cook and his expeditions.

Cook’s first voyage on the HMS Endeavour from 1768 to 1771 was ostensibly scientific. Part of an international project under the auspices of the Royal Society and Royal Navy, its purpose was to map Venus’s path across the sun from a variety of points on the globe, with the goal of ultimately using the data to extrapolate the size of the solar system. More recognizable early modern entanglements between science, navigation, and imperialism motivated his second and third voyages to discover the Southern Continent (1772–75)—which he was also secretly tasked with on his first mission—and the elusive Northwest Passage (1776–80). These expeditions laid the foundation for future European imperial endeavors and colonization in the Pacific.

Comprising one room, in addition to a small introductory foyer, the exhibition space with its warm wood paneling was an intimate contrast to the many grand galleries of the British Museum. The cases along the perimeter of the exhibition room mostly addressed Cook’s engagements geographically, while four display cases in the center of the room focused on thematic concerns, such as the reception and collecting of Pacific Islander material culture in the wake of Cook’s voyages. Many of the artifacts from the Pacific Islands were brought from Cook’s expeditions, and they were displayed within the exhibition next to natural history and ethnographic drawings, as well as engravings from travelogues and other artistic representations of the Pacific Islands. These were interspersed with the artworks of contemporary Pacific Island artists. It was a compelling juxtaposition that allowed the viewer the rare opportunity to confront this history and its legacy both synchronically and diachronically, understanding objects in their historical context while making it possible for them to take on new meaning when presented within a postcolonial context.

Focusing primarily on the areas of Aotearoa (New Zealand), New Caledonia, Tahiti, and the Hawaiian Islands, the British Museum’s exhibition did a good job highlighting the central role that indigenous intermediaries played when they helped Cook and his crew secure specimens, resources, and allies. For example, it devoted considerable attention to Tupaia, a Tahitian arioi (priest), navigator, cartographer, and interpreter for Cook with the Māori people. The exhibition highlighted in particular the significance of his maps and drawings by presenting reproductions of the original objects. These displays subtly pushed against the mythic narratives of Cook as heroic explorer and revealed instead that many of his achievements arose from the labor and ingenuity of indigenous Pacific Islanders.

A 2012 photograph by Michael Cook takes as its subject the Bidjara people of Australia. Entitled Civilised #12, it juxtaposes the words of William Dampier, the first English person to visit Australia in 1688, with an image of an Aboriginal woman holding a baby doll. The bias of Dampier’s culturally deterministic views, that Aboriginal people were “the miserablest in the world” because “they have no houses but lie in the open air, without any covering; the earth being their bed, and the heaven their canopy,” is brought to the fore as the majestic and noble Aboriginal mother sits against the expanse of the ocean in a manner reminiscent of Madonna and Child iconography, constrained only by the European dress that envelops her. Michel Tuffery’s 2008 painting Cookie in the Cook Islands, conversely, represents a fully acculturated Cook with hibiscus flowers behind his ears and Māori tikis in his collar as a reminder of the kinds of transformations undergone by people and cultures when brought into sustained contact with one another.

Wall texts containing quotations from indigenous artists were displayed alongside the contemporary artworks in the exhibition. “James Cook was important not just for Australia, but also for the whole Pacific: that’s why I, as a Papua New Guinean, paint him again and again,” reads Matthias Kauage’s 1998 text. Māori artist Lisa Reihana expressed a similar sentiment; her 2016 quote—“Once people have encountered each other, history is changed forever . . . and that’s the infection”—is visible upon exiting the exhibition. In this sense, Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives shares striking similarities with the exhibition Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, since October 2018, which opens with a projection of rolling quotations from Native American scholars and artists, such as Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone), professor of history at Yale, who states, “To engage Native art is to reconsider the meaning of America.”

Such inclusions of indigenous perspectives are long overdue, and it is an admirable step for these institutions to acknowledge finally the valued and necessary voices that indigenous communities bring to their own histories. But that inclusion is not a step far enough. Missing from both shows, as is all too often the case, is an institutional reckoning with their own complicity in the legacy of these encounters. At no point in the Met’s exhibition, for example, is the issue addressed of how these amazing Native American objects, many of which are ceremonial, came into the hands of the Dikers. Nor is the question of repatriation raised. Does the Met intend to register these objects under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), thereby opening the possibility of ceremonial objects being repatriated to tribes? Or does it plan to abdicate the possibility of future federal funding? It is unfortunate that the curators of the Met exhibition left the public in the dark about these pressing questions. Likewise, recent protests and controversies by Pacific Islander communities directly implicate the British Museum in questions of repatriation, including the Rapa Nui community’s recent request for the museum to return Hoa Hakananai’a, a sculpture stolen from Easter Island in 1868. It is surprising that Pacific Perspectives, whose express aim was to bring indigenous perspectives from that region into dialogue with the British Museum, did not address any of these concerns, instead remaining silent to the benefit of the preservation of ethically questionable institutional policies.

The curators, for example, took care to highlight the provenance of certain key works, such as the chief mourner’s costume (known as a heva tupapa’u) from Tahiti. The wall text made clear that Cook acquired this imposing ceremonial garb, the centerpiece of the exhibition, during his second voyage with the consent of the community in exchange for highly valued red feathers.

But the British Museum’s Gweagal shield is conspicuously absent from the exhibition. This bark shield with a bullet hole marking the first violent encounter between Cook and Aboriginal Australians was seized by Cook from Cooman, its original owner, and later gifted to the British Museum. Rodney Kelly, Cooman’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, has held protests in the British Museum demanding the shield’s return. The artifact was a glaring omission from the exhibition, both because of its significance to European-Aboriginal contact under Cook and because of its centrality to the debate of repatriation that is engulfing institutions like the British Museum at this very moment.

Unfortunately, Pacific Perspectives participated in a selective silence, which is representative of the willful blind spots museums continue to maintain while curating exhibitions that engage in historically and historiographically critical postcolonial perspectives. Museums are at a critical juncture and the question must be asked: can they mount exhibitions that fairly incorporate indigenous perspectives and voices while simultaneously remaining silent about their own unsavory histories and current practices of collecting that account for why indigenous voices are so needed in museum spaces? Without the museum addressing this question directly, the exhibition’s employment of contemporary indigenous voices could be read as instrumental, using them to create a veneer of institutional awakening and self-critique when in reality there is very little of either. To be sure, the incorporation of indigenous perspectives into exhibitions about their own histories is a crucially important step in the right direction. I only wish that at the British Museum, the step had been a bigger one.

Liza Oliver
Diana Chapman Walsh Assistant Professor of Art History, Wellesley College