Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Mat Trinca on NMA’s Endeavour Voyage:

Endeavour, Weary Bay Disaster, by Sonya Creek, 2019. Picture: National Museum of Australia.

Sally Pryor, The National Museum of Australia is journeying to a new realm on the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing, The Canberra Times, 4 April 2020

Cook would record this natural phenomenon in his diary entry for April 20, 1770, a marker for the first point of Australian land spotted by the crew of the Endeavour.

It was the beginning of the Australian leg of one of history’s most remarkable voyages.

But for the people who had already been living on this land for some 65,000 years, the water spouts were more than just a marvel of nature. They were a portent of what was to come.

Nayuun, Ngangun – Hibiscus tiliaceus, by Vera Scarth-Johnson. Picture: Supplied.

For the local inhabitants, the spouts were water spirits, touching the water with a warning that something was happening, and that life as they knew it was about to change.

Now, 250 years later, the world is going through a very different seismic change. A creeping contagion, COVID-19, has spread throughout the word and entire cities are shutting down like dominoes in an effort to stem the flow of illness.

No one is immune – not the mightiest economies nor the strongest societies. Shops, malls, schools, airlines, offices and institutions of all kinds have been forced to close, as the world waits for the virus to run its course.

Over at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, the doors have shut, temporarily, on what was set to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set the accepted narrative of Australia’s foundations on a new set of double tracks.

But the high-tech exhibition will still go ahead, just in an online format for the foreseeable future.

Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians will look at different sides of the foundation narrative of Cook’s first landing on Australian shores, featuring both the view from the ship, and the one from the shore.

It’s designed to honour both Cook’s great voyage of scientific and geographic exploration, and the rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that has thrived in Australia for 65,000 years.

James Cook portrait by Nathaniel Dance, 1776. Picture: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Starting with the water spouts, the show will immerse visitors in the moment in 1770 when two great knowledge systems came face to face, as the First Australians encountered Lieutenant Cook and his crew.

Or it will, in a way – online, instead of in the physical space of the museum’s building.

Like many cultural institutions around the world, the museum is facing this new challenge with optimism, and turning to the online space to tell the story in a different way.

But still, museum director Mat Trinca says shutting the doors on the eve of this landmark exhibition has been “desperately sad, not because we shouldn’t be shut – clearly we’re doing our part and making sure that we shut as all public facilities should be – it’s just that it’s extraordinary to think that this once-in-a-hundred-year shutdown has come in this anniversary year.

“You wouldn’t read about it really.”

Sounding only slightly morose over the phone from his home office, where he has recently been relegated along with thousands of other working Australians, he says museum staff are already hard at work reimagining the show in a different realm.

“We’ve really thrown out this challenge to our staff now, and a great number of them are working from home,” he said.

HMS Endeavour ship, by Kurt Kynuna, 2019. Driftwood, pearl shell, galvanised wire and screws. Picture: National Museum of Australia.

“We’ve said, how can we think about bringing this story of Cook’s Endeavour voyage to life using virtual technologies? And they’re responding really strongly to it.

“And of course the other thing about it is, in a way, using these digital technologies will bring the show, and the experience of the show, to many more people than would have been possible had we just flung the doors open and then had some materials online.”

And there will, he says, come a time when people will be able to see the show in a physical setting. It’s been too long in the making, and many of the objects on loan from overseas museums had already arrived, in time for what would have been this week’s grand opening.

“We’ve really thrown out this challenge to our staff now, and a great number of them are working from home,” he said.

“We’ve said, how can we think about bringing this story of Cook’s Endeavour voyage to life using virtual technologies? And they’re responding really strongly to it.

“And of course the other thing about it is, in a way, using these digital technologies will bring the show, and the experience of the show, to many more people than would have been possible had we just flung the doors open and then had some materials online.”

And there will, he says, come a time when people will be able to see the show in a physical setting. It’s been too long in the making, and many of the objects on loan from overseas museums had already arrived, in time for what would have been this week’s grand opening.

A swap card titled “No. 4 Captain Cook’s Ship Endeavour”, produced by the Atlantic Union Oil Company. Picture: National Museum of Australia.

The museum has long built a reputation for innovation exhibitions that give voice to the first Australians – it’s a crucial part of its remit.

Endeavour will be one of its most significant yet, years in the making, and involving collaborations between museum curators and Indigenous communities along Australia’s east coast, whose ancestors witnessed the 1770 passage of the Endeavour.

Through objects, journal entries, artworks and oral histories, stories passed down through generations, the show goes to the heart of the origins of Australia’s shared history.

Like all good museum shows, the exhibition includes a choice collection of objects that date back to the voyage itself, including Cook’s journal, hand-drawn maps, a stove owned by botanist Joseph Banks, and one of the Endeavour’s cannons, jettisoned from the ship about to strike the reef, and retrieved from the reef in the 1960s.

There will also be a series of contemporary indigenous artworks that reinterpret the Endeavour story and its continuing legacy for First Australians.

Showing these side-by-side, says lead curator Ian Coates, is a way of collapsing time and space.

“It’s one of our foundation stories, but people have a tendency to want to simplify them and I get that,” he says.

But the stories passed down through the local indigenous communities tell a different story about Cook’s arrival on these shores.

“Previously, in 1970, the narrative around Cook was the discovery of Australia… so to shift it to think well, he’s just a visitor, he’s not a discoverer, you then have to pump up the kind of indigenous story around being in this place.”

For John Paul Janke, the deputy chair of the indigenous reference group advising the museum, the exhibition could be a turning point for reconciliation.

“For a number of years I’ve been yarning with a couple of other indigenous leaders, and saying I think as a nation, we really need to get something out of 2020, and the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook,” he says.

“I don’t want us to have an exhibition, have a lot of angst about the celebrations or the commemorations, and not have something tangible out of it.

“I really felt that we needed to get something valuable out of this anniversary, and for me it’s what the museum’s doing.”

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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