James Cook: The Voyages – British Library

On the very last day of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library, I popped down to pay it a visit. Luckily, like all exhibitions at the BL it opens late on Tuesdays, so I was able to pop down after work.

August 2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage sailed from Plymouth. This exhibition examines each of the three voyages in chronological order, using original artefacts created on board ship and collected from the places Cook and his crew explored. It examines the impact the voyages – which increased awareness of many of the coasts and islands of the Pacific, unknown to Europeans despite being inhabited for thousands of years – had on the modern world, both for the British and for the people who inhabited those places, both positive and negative.

I liked the way the exhibition was set out, with Cook’s travels clearly delineated – there were plenty of maps and globes on display to show where he went. Cook’s voyages took him to South Africa and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and many islands in the Pacific, as well as, of course, Antarctica. Cook’s ship was the first to ever venture into the Antarctic Circle, and I was excited to see the entry in the ship’s log marking this momentous occasion. For most people, though, Cook’s encounters with the original inhabitants of the places he visited are probably of greater interest. While not every interaction Cook and his crew had with these people was negative by any means, there was mistrust, misunderstanding and conflict, and his voyages helped pave the way for the colonialism of later centuries, and all the atrocities that went with it.

Artefacts such as logbooks, diaries and published works are displayed, as well as paintings and drawings by crew members and those employed as artists. There are also a good number of objects and works of art made by Aboriginal, Maori, Polynesian and other peoples to attempt a more balanced perspective.

I thought the exhibition did a good job of examining Cook’s voyages, their impact, significance and consequences. I’m very glad I made the effort to go before it closed.

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