2018 marks the 250th anniversary of Cook’s maiden voyage to discover the southern continent. Claire Pitcher looks at what some of the country’s museums and towns have planned to celebrate our maritime past.
The year is 1768, and Britain is in the throes of the Age of Enlightenment. This is the year Captain James Cook sets sail on a voyage of discovery in search of terra australis incognita – the unknown southern continent, as Europeans called it. What Cook and his crew encounter on arrival is a vast number of island civilisations covering almost a third of the world’s surface: from Tahiti in Polynesia, to the scattered archipelagos and islands of Melanesia and Micronesia.
Two-hundred-and-fifty years later and some of the country’s best maritime museums will be celebrating Cook’s triumphs in 2018. Not only that, but brand-new exhibitions and galleries will be taking their own maiden voyages, focusing on exploring the oceans, as well as some of the more harrowing tales from the high seas. From historical maps charting Cook’s expedition of discovery to a replica of the Titanic’s No 13 lifeboat, there’s never been more opportunity to dive into Britain’s maritime history.
Oceania’s art in London
London’s Royal Academy will also be commemorating the 250-year anniversary. From 29th September to 10th December, go and see the dazzling and diverse art of the region of Oceania, from the historic to the contemporary.
Through more than 250 compelling works ranging from shell, greenstone and ceramic ornaments, to huge canoes and dazzling house facades, you can explore important themes of voyaging, place making, encounter and union. The exhibition draws from rich historic ethnographic collections dating from the 18th century to the present, spanning treasures from the ancient past through to work by Lisa Reihana, a contemporary artist of Maori and British descent from New Zealand.
The exhibition also marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy; founded in 1768, the same year Captain James Cook set sail on his first expedition from Plymouth on the Endeavour. Find out more at royalacademy.org.uk
Endeavour sails to Whitby
One of the most famous ships in the history of maritime exploration will voyage along the North York Moors coast to Whitby this summer.
In August last year, a partnership led by Whitby businessman Andrew Fiddler purchased HM Bark Endeavour, one of only two full-scale replicas in the world of the ship commanded by explorer Captain James Cook for his voyage to Australia and New Zealand.
The partnership’s auction bid of £155,000 safeguarded the replica’s future as a North East visitor attraction, having beaten competing bids that could have seen the ship moved to Portsmouth, London or Dubai.
Mr Fiddler plans to spend nearly £750,000 refurbishing and repairing the 33-metre long Teesside-built ship and then relocating it to where the original Endeavour was built in 1764. It’s now just a case of carefully working out a complex programme for sensitively refurbishing the ship so that once again HM Bark Endeavour can tell the story of life at sea in the 18th century. Take a trip to the North York Moors National Park this summer to see the replica in all its glory. Also in Whitby, visit the Cook Memorial Museum for a special exhibition entitled ‘Whitby in the time of Cook, the making of a great seaman’ which will be displayed in the attic where the Master Mariner, John Walker lodged James Cook when not at sea during his apprenticeship. It will explain the debt Cook owed to Whitby as he sailed from Plymouth 250 years ago. Find out more at cookmuseumwhitby.co.uk
New encounters at the National Maritime Museum
If you’re hungry to know more about the world’s explorers then this September’s opening of the Exploration Wing at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich should be a date for your diary. Visitors can peruse four new galleries spanning Pacific and Polar exploration and Britain’s maritime past. Discover ‘Pacific Encounters’; ‘Polar Worlds’; ‘Tudor and Stuart Seafarers’; and ‘Sea Things’, plus a thousand additional objects will be brought out of the Museum’s collections. All of these will be housed in areas of the Museum that visitors were unable to see before.
A must visit will be the ‘Pacific Encounters’ gallery, which tells tales of exploration and exploitation, as European travellers ventured into the vast ocean. The gallery will display objects from the voyages of renowned figures, such as Captain Cook, alongside a full size Pacific voyaging canoe – putting the museum’s collections into the broader context of Pacific histories, identities, and the legacies of these early encounters in the Pacific today.Discover more at rmg.co.uk
Titanic tales in Cornwall
If you’re planning a summer visit to the south west then a trip to Falmouth’s National Maritime Museum is a must. Their major new exhibition ‘Titanic Stories’, examines the stories of the Titanic’s momentous sinking on 15th April 1912, re-appraising many of the myths, controversies and assumptions that still linger around one of the most well known historic events of the 20th century. Working in collaboration with private collectors from overseas and national museums in the UK, ‘Titanic Stories’ presents rare and never-seen-before objects and items, as well as retelling the personal stories of many of the survivors, victims and descendants of the Titanic disaster, including those from Cornwall. In addition to the many historic objects, the museum will also commission a number of large-scale new installation pieces which will go on display in its galleries, including an exact, life-size replica of Lifeboat 13, made by specialist boat builders in Falmouth as well as working with a Cornish-based artist to create a visually-stunning representation of the iceberg suspended over the lifeboat. Find out more at nmmc.co.uk
Prints at Pitt Rivers
At the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, from the end of May to 29th September, they will be commemorating 250 years since Cook’s voyage, with an exhibition of ‘Prints from Cook’s Voyages’. The Museum holds about 170 prints relating to the Cook Voyage which have not been exhibited before. These prints are from engravings, which were used to illustrate both official and unofficial accounts of the voyages. As well as these never-seen-before prints, there are over 150 objects in the Cook Collection to see at the museum, a lot of which were collected in the South Pacific by Johann Forster and his son during James Cook’s second voyage to search for a southern continent. From weapons to wooden figurines, the ‘Cook Case’ is just a snapshot of what the explorer must have seen on his travels. Find out more about this commemorative exhibition at prm.ox.ac.uk
Set course to the British Library
The British Library holds one the most extensive and compelling collections of original documents and works of art from James Cook’s voyages. A landmark exhibition, open from 27th April to 28th August, ‘James Cook: The Voyages’ will be a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to see the collection on display.
The Library’s collection includes Cook’s chart of Botany Bay, his map of New Zealand, and a world map made after the second voyage showing the course of the Resolution and the lands visited en route. There are also drawings by all of the artists employed on the voyages, and the only surviving paintings by Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest and navigator who joined the first voyage at Tahiti and sailed with Cook to New Zealand and Australia. The Library also holds several original logbooks and journals, which provide vivid eyewitness accounts of the voyages. These will be exhibited alongside key loans that complement the Library’s collection and that have not been displayed together before. Find out more at bl.uk
Cook the explore
James Cook first went to sea at the age of 18. He spent 10 years working in the coal trade of the east coast of England. In 1755 he joined the Royal Navy, and within two years passed his master’s examination to qualify for the navigation and handling of a royal ship. He gained surveying experience in North American waters during the Seven Years War and spent the first years of peace between 1763 and 1767 charting the coast of Newfoundland.
During those years he gained a practical training in maths and astronomy, and gained the technical skills to make an effective explorer. As he wrote, he intended to go not only ‘farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go’.
Cook’s first voyage was a joint venture under the auspices of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. The original intention was to organise a scientific voyage to observe the transit of the planet Venus from Tahiti, and this was appended by instructions to search for the great southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, whose location had baffled European navigators and projectors since the 16th century. With Lieutenant Cook (as he was at that time) sailed the botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer Charles Green, and a small number of scientific assistants and artists. Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, was a bluff-bowed Whitby collier chosen for her strength, shallow draught, and storage capacity.
By the end of his first voyage Cook had put over 5,000 miles of previously unknown coastline on the map. The twin islands of New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the Torres Strait had been unveiled to the world.