Swiss museum rediscovers James Cook

James Cook is still considered one of the world's greatest explorers

The historical museum of Bern invites visitors to explore the world of British navigator James Cook, who made three trips to the Pacific Ocean in the late 1700s.

This content was published on October 11, 2010 - 08:05
Susan Vogel-Misicka,

On his third journey, Cook was joined by Bernese painter John Webber. Items that Webber collected and donated to the city of Bern account for a significant part of the show.

The exhibition is organised within the framework of the three voyages, which took place between 1768 and 1780.

While Cook’s travels and adventures are an important part of the show, other key themes include South Seas culture as well as the encounters between the vastly different European and Pacific worlds.

“The exhibition starts with three figures: James Cook, John Webber and a South Pacific feather god. The three layers of the show are the European perspective, the Pacific perspective and the meeting of those two cultures,” museum director Jakob Messerli told

The exhibition features nearly 400 objects, paintings and drawings from museums and private collections all over the world.

“This is the first time that these items have been brought together again in more than 200 years,” said Messerli at the launch of the exhibition.

Rare finds

Over the course of the three journeys, Cook and his colleagues gathered nearly 2,000 objects that they carefully transported back to Europe. Many ended up in private homes as well as museums.

Made of organic materials such as wood, grass and shells, these souvenirs were extremely fragile – so fragile that few remain in their native lands.

“Hardly any comparable objects survive in Polynesia, and for today’s Pacific cultures these collections are therefore an important component in strengthening awareness of their traditions and consequently their sense of identity,” according to Thomas Psota, head of the museum’s ethnography department and curator of the exhibition.

That knowledge increases the visitor’s appreciation when confronted with the 81-centimetre bust of an orange feather god. Other highlights include fierce wooden masks and weapons as well as elaborate jewellery made of iridescent shells and gleaming jade.

Navigational systems

These island items provide an earthy contrast to the shiny metal and glass tools on display. For example, a brass octant and sextant hint at how painstaking it was to calculate latitude during Cook’s time.

“Cook’s ability as a cartographer was amazing,” said Psota, while pointing at a detailed chart of the southern hemisphere.

Meanwhile, elegant telescopes and table-top globes indicate how fashionable it was to be aware of one’s place in the world in those days.

To help the museum-goer stay on the ball, there are three short films showing Cook’s progress on each of his Pacific expeditions. Additional multimedia displays, some of them interactive, are sprinkled throughout.

Native son

Paintings and sketches round out the exhibition. Many show romantic island scenes complete with pink ocean-side sunsets and wreath-wearing dancers.

Others are more biological in nature; on every voyage, Cook brought a scientific artist to document the exotic flora and fauna. Portraits of Cook and his colleagues are also on view.

The artist who gets the most attention is John Webber, born in London to Swiss parents in 1751. Webber spent most of his childhood with an aunt in Bern, and it was there that he got his start as a painter.

The merchant’s guild of Bern financed his four-year education at the Académie Royale in Paris. Webber later returned to London, where Cook chose him to serve on the third and final tour in 1776.

“Webber had a challenging job,” said Psota, noting that the young artist had to be equally skilled at landscapes, portraits and botanical themes.

Another artist who gets a special mention is a Tahitian priest named Tupaia, who travelled with Cook during his first Pacific journey. His drawings illustrate aspects of his native culture, such as a group of musicians.

“For me as an ethnologist, this is a particularly meaningful part of the exhibition,” Psota said. Tupaia also proved helpful in encounters with the warriors in New Zealand.

Visual appeal

The exhibition is visually appealing and manages to present a wealth of materials and information without being overwhelming.

“The biggest challenge was probably trying to tell such a complex story with the different layers of the historical biographies, the voyages themselves and of course all the different islands Cook visited,” exhibition scenographer Raphaël Barbier told

Barbier said that one of his favourite items was a red and yellow feathered cloak presented to Cook in Hawaii.

Speaking of wraps, the carefully regulated museum temperature isn’t at all tropical, so guests might want to think twice about checking their jackets.

Exhibition details

“James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific”

Historical Museum of Bern

October 7, 2010 to February 13, 2011

The British navigator James Cook (1728–1779) is considered one of the greatest explorers of all time.

His three expeditions to the unexplored expanses of the Pacific fundamentally changed the view Europeans had of the world and permanently influenced their knowledge of navigation, astronomy, natural history and the history of civilisation in the Age of Enlightenment.

The exhibition tells the story of the voyages of the famous circumnavigator through more than 400 items, using the most advanced exhibition techniques.

Thanks to loans from Europe and overseas, it has been possible for the first time to re-assemble in an exhibition the most important objects brought back by Cook and his companions from their voyages.

Masks, idols, carvings as well as original nautical charts, navigational instruments, ship models and paintings by the artists who accompanied Cook testify to the fascination for the new and exotic and bring back to life Cook’s adventures and encounters in an exciting display.

Source: Historisches Museum Bern

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