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by Charlie Aldringer, Honolulu Academy of Arts

The exhibition is organized by the Academy in cooperation with the Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Georg August University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, Germany. The collection is famous among anthropologists but little known to the general public. The Honolulu exhibition, which will present some 350 objects from Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tonga, Tahiti and the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Vanuatu (New Hebrides), New Caledonia, Hawai‘i, and the Northwest Coast of America, will be the first time that the entire Göttingen collection will be 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.

This exhibition represents one of the most comprehensive presentations of 18th-century cultural objects from the Pacific ever presented in Hawai‘i or the Pacific. These amazing works, made largely before Cook’s contact with the indigenous cultures, are extraordinary for their inherent beauty, craftsmanship, and unique mana (spiritual power). The works are significant as well because they were given as gifts or traded with Cook from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.
The Göttingen collections contain objects for both daily use and ritual. The exhibition will include bracelets from Vanuatu (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 include fishhooks, tattoo combs, musical instruments, baskets, weapons, clothing, and objects of adornment.

In discussing the project and its significance, Academy Director Stephen Little noted,the disease and death for many cultures throughout the Pacific–-a fact Cook himself recognized. The purpose of this exhibition, however, is not to glorify Cook, but on the contrary 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 will also explore the remarkable place of each of these cultures within the broader geographical and cultural context of the Pacific Ocean in the 1700s. As such, the exhibition represents a rare opportunity for cross-cultural understanding that may not come to Hawai‘i again for many years.

And with ongoing realities of colonialism, I hope that this exhibition will shed a new light on life in the Pacific in the 1700s. The Academy is working closely with members of the Hawaiian, Maori, and Tongan communities, as well as other Pacific Islands cultural specialists, to develop the interpretive and educational public programs that will accompany the exhibition. The Academy is honored to have been given this opportunity.

It has been more than 200 years since Cook made three voyages through the Pacific Ocean between 1768 and 1779. He was killed on February 14, 1779, at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawai‘i during the third voyage. Cook was the son of an English farm laborer, who because of his excellent navigational skills, 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 Lower Saxony’s connections to the English royal house, a donation of several hundred objects from Cook’s voyages were made to the Academic Museum of the Georg August University, which was founded in 1737. The donation was made in 1782 by the English King George III, who also ruled Lower Saxony. 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 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 mid-19th century, a group of objects was given from Göttingen to the newly erected Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover. Thanks to the generous cooperation of this museum, the two parts of the collection will be reunited for the first time in many years in Honolulu. The Academy enlisted Gerry Barton, a conservator from New Zealand working in Germany, to provide appropriate conservation treatment of the collections.

The Academy has organized Life in the Pacific of the 1700s for four reasons. First, the museum has always represented the indigenous cultures of the Pacific in its collections, and has supported these cultures (particularly native Hawaiian culture) ever since the museum opened in 1927. The Academy’s founder, Anna Rice Cooke, spoke fluent Hawaiian, and was keenly aware of the important place of indigenous cultures throughout the Pacific. The Academy’s primary mission is education through the vehicle of works of art and the preservation of culture.

Second, these artifacts were for the most part created before Cook encountered these indigenous peoples. Their condition is largely pristine. The opportunity to stand before these original works and experience their visual and spiritual power is one that cannot be duplicated in a book or electronic image. This provides a unique opportunity for residents and visitors in the Pacific today.
Third, this exhibition demonstrates the close connections between ancient cultures in the Pacific – cultures that were often separated by great distances across the ocean. These connections, for example between the cultures of Tahiti and Hawai‘i, can be easily demonstrated in the realms of language and religion, but are especially clear when works of similar function and manufacture are displayed together.

Finally, the exhibition poses the question: what is the role and relevance of the indigenous cultures of the Pacific today? The works in this exhibition, both mundane and sacred, are windows into the past, present, and future.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a comprehensive educational program of lectures, performances, films, and other related activities. The Academy will publish a three-volume full-color catalogue to document the exhibited works, and a compact printed guide to the exhibition.

For more information about Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook/Forster Collection of the Georg August University of Göttingen call (808) 532 –8700 or visit the Honolulu Academy’s Web site at www.honoluluacademy.org.
 
 

 

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