Relocate Sydney’s Captain Cook statue
Open letter: Relocate the Captain Cook statue, The Saturday Paper, 4 July 2020
City of Sydney
c/o City Arts Program
GPO Box 1591
Sydney NSW 2001
Re: Relocation of Captain James Cook statue (1879) by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).
We, the undersigned, are writing to request the relocation of the statue Captain Cook (1879) by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), currently sited in Sydney’s Hyde Park, to a public museum.
We believe that, at this moment in Australia’s history, as a public we should reconsider the place of this public monument representing Captain James Cook. The significance of Cook in the current public imagination is evident in passionate debate that such statues in the name of the nation are igniting globally. What Cook represents, his continuing legacy in First Nations peoples’ dispossession and social injustice, perpetuates suffering. Public spaces such as Hyde Park should be welcoming to all. For this reason, and those further outlined below, the statue of Cook should no longer be displayed in the park, but conserved in a public museum.
This sculpture, by artist Thomas Woolner, a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, represents his most important work in Australia. It was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of Cook’s death during his failed attempt to kidnap a Hawaiian chief. This statue has a significant role in the fabric of Australian colonial history, both as the foremost example of Woolner’s art in Australia and as a monument to Cook, a consequential figure in the story of British imperialism, Indigenous dispossession and the nation’s foundations. The statue’s proper place is in a public museum where its historical and aesthetic contexts can be better understood, displayed and conserved.
The central role Cook plays in the nation’s official histories, Aboriginal stories and Australian popular culture should not be erased or attenuated. In the words of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Aboriginal rights activist, poet, veteran and educator: “Let no one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.” Cook is a central figure who should be re-examined in current discussions of heritage and how we, as a nation and people, imagine our future.
Our museums enable the retelling of important stories in new and relevant ways, keeping our histories alive so we can imagine a future that is equitable and just for all. The full history of Cook should be known, which is why a museum and not a public park is the most appropriate place for this statue – Hyde Park especially, which continues to be a significant place for Indigenous history and peoples today. As many Indigenous peoples have made it known, the presence of this statue in Hyde Park is an unwelcome reminder of hundreds of years of pain and despair.
Museums are places where we can expect to have our ideas and tastes challenged. For example, in 1979 audiences in Chicago encountered an intervention by artist Michael Asher, who relocated a statue of George Washington from its pride of place at the public entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago to its rightful context in the museum’s colonial galleries. By relocating historic colonial statues to inside the museum, artworks such as Woolner’s Cook can be revalued, our beliefs about them rethought, and our attachments to them challenged. Let the museum speak of the past; things must change in order for truth to be heard and future histories made.
Interventions like this allow us to reconsider how public works of art can be revalued, our ideas about them rethought, and our attachments to them challenged. As a community of experts in this field, we believe that the museum is the rightful place for Woolner’s Cook.
Nicholas Tammens, Curator, Kunstverein Hamburg and 1856, Melbourne; Tristen Harwood, Indigenous writer and critic, and board member, un Projects; Dr Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History, University of Melbourne; Dr Charles Green, Professor of Art History, University of Melbourne; Suzannah Henty, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne; Jane Eckett, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Linda Tyler, Convenor of Museums and Cultural Heritage, University of Auckland; Dr Nicholas Mangan, artist and Senior Lecturer, Department of Fine Art, Monash University; Dr Lisa Radford, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Dr Marnie Badham, School of Art, RMIT University; Dr Una Rey, School of Creative Industries, University of Newcastle; Dr Sean Lowry, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Patrice Sharkey, Artistic Director, ACE Open; Dr Tessa Laird, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Dr Darren Jorgensen, History of Art, University of Western Australia; Dr Sally Quin, Curator, University of Western Australia; Dr Sheridan Palmer, University of Melbourne; Anonymous state employee, cultural sector (VIC); Associate Professor Kate Daw, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Paris Lettau, Editor, Memo Review; Liz Nowell, Director, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Dr Rex Butler, Monash University; Arvi Wattel, University of Western Australia; Megan Cope, Quandamooka visual artist; Professor Sarah Maddison, Co-Director, Indigenous Settler Relations Collaboration, University of Melbourne; Merindah Donnelly, Executive Producer, BlakDance, Brisbane; Professor Daniel Palmer, RMIT University; Warraba Weatherall, Off-site Project Co-ordinator, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Clothilde Bullen, Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Associate Professor Tara McDowell, Monash University; Dr Emma Hicks, Co-ordinator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Learning Programs, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Jazz Money, Digital Producer, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Dr Peter Brunt, Associate Professor, Art History, Victoria University of Wellington; Dr Ann Stephen, Senior Curator, University Art Gallery and Art Collections, Sydney University Museums, and Chair, Art Monthly Australasia; Amelia Wallin, Director, West Space; Georgia Hutchison, Executive Director, Liquid Architecture; Associate Professor Anthony White, University of Melbourne; Emily Floyd, artist and Senior Lecturer, Art Design and Architecture, Monash University; Guillermo Fernández-Abascal, Lecturer, School of Architecture, University of Technology Sydney; Dr Bianca Hester, artist, writer and Senior Lecturer, Art and Design, University of New South Wales; Kiernan Ironfield, Co-CEO, Songlines Music Aboriginal Corporation; Channon Goodwin, Director, Bus Projects; Alana Hunt, artist and writer; Brian Fuata, artist and writer; Dr Giles Fielke, Editor, Index Journal; Amelia Winata, President, Memo Review; Lauren Louise Burrow, artist; Dr Jacqui Shelton, sessional academic and artist; Dr Rosemary Forde, curator; Dr Spiros Panigirakis, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of Fine Arts, Monash University, and Chair, un Projects; Briony Galligan, sessional academic and artist, and board member, TCB Art Inc.; Audrey Schmidt, writer and Editor, min.report; Dr Anna Parlane, Lecturer, Monash University; George Criddle, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Tara Heffernan, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne; Professor David Cross, Visual Arts, Deakin University; Dr Katie Lee, Creative Arts and Expanded Performance, Deakin University; Dr Torika Bolatagici, Lecturer, Deakin University; Clare Cooper, Lecturer, University of Sydney, and Co-Founder, Frontyard Projects; Kelly Fliedner, writer, curator and editor; Helen Walter, architect; Rafaela Pandolfini, artist and organiser; Frances Barrett, artist; Annette Vieusseux, contemporary performance producer; Claudia Nicholson, artist; Mitchel Cumming, artist; Madelyne Hudson-Buhagiar, psychologist, Victorian Aboriginal Health Service; Stella Maynard, writer.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2020 as “Relocate Cook statue”.