What's On: James Cook: The Voyages

by Bella Russell Hils

Marking 250 years since James Cook’s ship Endeavour set sail from Plymouth, the exhibition at London’s iconic British Library beautifully chronicles the journey of Cook’s three historic voyages. At the time of 1768, the islands of the Pacific were predominantly unknown to Europeans. Although we now know that they had in fact been inhabited for thousands of years, Cook’s voyages succeeded in filling in the missing pieces of the map, and as a result, the perception of world was entirely redefined.


The co-curators of the exhibition, William Frame and Laura Walker revealed two curatorial approaches implemented in the formulation of the gallery. The first being a layered approach whereby newly curated and commissioned films were layered over the original manuscripts, objects and paintings. Frame explains that it is “the dialogue between the two that is crucial to the exhibition.” The second approach was described as the ‘ripple effect’. This method involved working alongside the council of different community groups whose ancestors were in some mays touched by Cook’s expeditions. As a result of this collaboration, the British Library have opened up a second gallery to exhibit all of the responses received from these Pacific community groups. This brand new photographic show will display the opinions of the objects currently on show, the themes explored, but most crucial of all, it will feature the reaction to the responses of the exhibition itself.

Stepping into the gallery one is entirely transported back to the Georgian Era. The entrance hall is grand, elegantly lavished in ancient maps and charts, draping the marble walls from floor to ceiling. An introductory film plays in the background as the entire flocks around the dominant piece in the room, a portrait of James Cook himself. On loan from the National Portrait Gallery, the painting holds the gaze of a dozen people for a length of time.

Dramatically suspended alongside the portrait is one of Cook’s largest charts. It was no coincidence that Cook was chosen for this extraordinary adventure. Having perfected his skills as a cartographer during the Seven Years’ War, Cook stood out from the other European explorers and navigators of that period. His diligent skills matched his character. Arranged all around the room are the journals of men aboard the ship, many of which describe Cook as a brave and meticulous man. From a navigation point of view, this journey to the Pacific was extremely dangerous, diseases such as scurvy threatened the lives of everyone on board, and the harsh temperament of the Pacific itself made many question whether the Endeavour would ever return.


The gallery is structured chronologically through each voyage, allowing visitors to track the expeditions and watch the historical story unfold as they move from room to room. Before setting off, the introductory room gives a cultural context to the excursion in looking at the Enlightenment period in London during the time of departure. Various scientific books and journals gives a sense of how the Enlightenment influenced the intentions of the voyages. Jointly sponsored by the Royal Society and the Royal Navy, the mixed purpose of science but also trade is explored.

Commencing the setting off of the expedition, the first room is arranged into the key points of contact. This first voyage had a dual purpose, the first scientific, to record the transit of Venus, from multiple locations in order to record the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The colours marked on the chart below indicate the parts of the world from which the transit of Venus could be seen. Areas in white show where it would be possible to view the whole transit, areas in yellow and read signify where the transit could only be partially seen.

Cook also had secret instructions from the Royal Admiralty to discover the mythical southern continent, anticipated as a new site for trade, resources and potential imperial influence. One of the key objects in the room is the preserved beak of a squid. Botanist Joseph Banks found it floating dead in the sea and after eating it for dinner, Banks saved the beak for John Hunter, a distinguished scientist back in London.

Featuring an abundance of iconic artworks produced on board by expedition artists Sydney Parkinson, John Webber, Alexander Buchan and William Hodges, many of which have never before been publically displayed, visitors are invited to experience the voyages spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Antarctic Circle first-hand. Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, New Zealand and finally the coast of Australia. Below depicts one of the British camps in Tierra del Fuego drawn by Alexander Buchan. Buchan later died following an epileptic seizure in Tahiti and so this painting is one of only a handful that symbolise Buchan’s surviving legacy.  

Some of the most noteworthy drawings being the first illustrations of the Antarctic landscape on record, the elegant portrayal of indigenous tribes and their cultures, the first European drawing of a Kangaroo and the original sketches drawn by the Polynesian high priest and navigator, Tupaia.

Accompanying the multitude of intricate drawings, a mass of original charts, maps and Cook’s handwritten journal extracts are weaved elegantly into the story, revealing the immense planning that went into devising and sustaining this epic journey of discovery. Coming face-to-face with Cook’s first chart of New Zealand, the first European illustrations of Hawai’i and the perfectly preserved specimens from the first voyage, the enormity of the expeditions is put into perspective.



What made this exhibit particularly intriguing is its exploration of different attitudes and opinions throughout the three voyages. Displaying side-by-side accounts of those on board the ships and those that watched the arrival of the explorers as they reached their shores, paints a harrowing picture that anticipates the looming violence of imperialism. Having witnessed the depictions of picturesque villages, the welcoming locals and their bountiful untouched lands, one quickly recognises the unfolding fate of these exquisite tropical havens. With this in mind, the following room is dedicated to the contemporary perspectives on the voyages, examined through the presence of recently commissioned films. Detailing views on Cook’s legacy in the countries that were visited such as New Zealand, Australia and many of the Pacific Islands, the broad range of opinions expressed throughout these features enable visitors to receive a well-rounded account of events. It encourages a moment of reflection upon the cultural meaning of these voyages, and the unquestionable relevance it has today.


The exhibition’s finale is just as captivating as its start, and it doesn’t end there. Whilst visitors not only have access to a plethora of material that for the first time ever has been made readily available in one space, the British Library have also created an ever-growing web space hosting a variety of recently digitised collection artefacts, articles and interviews, audio-visual content, and a portal which invites academics, journalists and the public to discuss their impressions of the exhibition itself.


Cook’s expeditions remain a highly controversial and debated topic today. Ongoing disputes in courts today continue the battle regarding Cook’s claim of the east coast of Australia for Britain. Just 50 years ago the story of the voyages would have been told in a very patriotic way, a story that is told very differently today, and this gradual evolution of attitudes is reflected throughout the course of the gallery.


A remarkable artistic representation of Cook’s voyages, this exhibition is not to be missed.


James Cook: The Voyages, is on display at London’s British Library, 27 April – 28 August 2018. 

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