Lonely Planet Writer

British Library to host exhibition of Captain Cook's voyages

To mark 250 years since Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour set sail from Plymouth in 1768, the British Library on London’s Euston Road will be hosting a major exhibition (from 27 April 2018 to 28 August 2018) telling the story of Cook’s three voyages through original documents, many of which were produced by the artists, scientists and seamen on board the ship.

Captain James Cook’s 3rd voyage illustrations – 1777-1779. Image by John Webber/British Library

Newly commissioned video content explores these histories, creating a dialogue within the exhibition with differing perspectives on James Cook, the man and his legacy.  

Portrait of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) Image by British Library

Many voices and perspectives shed light on the first encounters documented here, which at the time completed the British map of the known world but which also formed the starting point for two centuries of colonisation and globalisation.

The exhibition also looks at Cook’s journals detailing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, as well as handwritten logbooks, stunning artwork and intricate maps charting his three voyages, which spanned more than a decade.

Captain James Cook’s chart of New Zealand. Image by British Library

Drawings by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, who joined the first voyage at Tahiti and accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia acting as a guide and interpreter, will be going on public display for the first time together, alongside works by expedition artists Sydney Parkinson, John Webber and William Hodges.

Tupaia’s paintings include a series of depictions of Tahitian society and culture, as well as drawings from New Zealand and Australia. The exhibition also examines the scientific work of the expeditions and will feature some of the original natural history drawings made on the voyages, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo drawn by Sydney Parkinson, on loan from the Natural History Museum.

Captain James Cook’s journal describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Image by British Library

However, this is no celebration of the Enlightenment, exploration and Empire. The curators have not shied away from the controversial nature of Cook’s voyages and the decimation of First Nations communities that followed his explorations.

Mouth parts of a squid, specimen from first voyage Image by Royal College of Surgeons

As Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge says in one of the video displays: ‘There’s been a sort of revolution in understanding voyages and cross-cultural encounters’. A picture by Polynesian artist Michael Tuffery questions how Cook himself was altered by his experiences in the Pacific.

A View of the Endeavour’s Watering Place in the Bay of Good Success’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769

This layered approach to history will be continued during the exhibition by exploring the responses from communities impacted by Cook’s voyages to the themes and objects displayed. There is also a full programme of events including talks, discussions and film screenings.

For more information see here.