story by Lynn Cook
photos Courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts
Taumi (warriors's breastplate),
Tahiti and Society Islands, 18th century
In the spring of 2002, a tall, urbane man stepped through Stephen Little’s office door, placed a thick book on Little’s desk and asked, “Have you seen this before?” Little was the director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts; the man with the book was a Berlin designer, a friend of Little’s named Peter Ruthenberg. The book was James Cook, Gifts and Treasures From the South Seas. Little began to flip through it. No, he said, he’d not seen it before. He kept turning the pages, growing increasingly astonished as he did so by the collection the book described: more than 500 “curiosities”—musical instruments, weapons, royal garments, carved bowls and much more—collected throughout the Pacific on Captain James Cook’s three great voyages, then tucked away 224 years ago in a small German university and never seen since.
Little’s thrill at knowing the collection existed was only heightened by Ruthenberg’s next suggestion: that the collection could be brought to Honolulu for an exclusive exhibit at the Academy. Ruthenberg had a connection to the keepers of the collection, he told Little. “Should I make contact?” he asked. “Definitely,” was Little’s reply. And so Ruthenberg did, traveling to Germany to meet with the people in charge of what is officially known as the Cook/Forster Collection of the George August University of Gottingen. The officials consulted with various political authorities, Little flew to Germany and presented the Academy’s request, and an agreement was signed in October 2004. Now, sixteen months later, starting this February 23, those of us fortunate enough to be in Honolulu will have an opportunity to see this remarkable collection—showing for the first time ever since it was assembled over two centuries ago and showing only once in the world, from February 23 to May 14.
Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.
—The journal of Captain James Cook
The Marquesas, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Tonga, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawai‘i. For most of the world, these islands remain remote and exotic still, even in the age of the jet-set and the Internet. In 1768, when Cook first set sail for the Pacific, the region was a fabled mystery to him. Who were the people of these islands? What sort of lives did they lead? Looking at the exquisite artistry of the pieces in the collection gives a picture of highly developed societies where people had the luxury of time. The story that the objects tell matches the story captured in the etchings and drawings of Cook’s ships’ artists: a story of cultures nourished by the wealth of land and sea and of people who had moved far beyond subsistence existence into vibrant, creative living.
Cook arrived in this world in 1768, when he sailed for Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. Later journeys had him seeking the Great Southern Continent and the Northwest Passage. Neither of those existed, but what he did find throughout his travels were dynamic communities where people were eager to trade. And trade was one of Cook’s mandates; he sailed with instructions from his sponsors, the English Royal Society, to: “observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any, and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value, inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard.”