National Museum unveils the untold stories of Cook and the First Australians


By Virtue of This Act I hereby Take Possession of This Land, Brian Robinson. Artwork courtesy of the artist and Mossenson Galleries. Image National Museum of Australia.

The view from the ship and the view from the shore will feature in a major exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, marking the 250th anniversary of Lieutenant James Cook's remarkable 1770 passage up the nation's east coast in the HMB Endeavour.

In a landmark exhibition showcasing one of the great seafaring feats of our time, Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians immerses visitors in the moment when two great knowledge systems came face to face, as the First Australians encountered Lieutenant Cook and his crew.

Endeavour Voyage will go to the heart of Australia's shared history, shining a light on the country's often tumultuous past and exploring the possibilities for the future.

Expanding on the often one-sided narrative associated with the Endeavour story, this new exhibition will 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 some 65thousand years.

The exhibition is the result of extensive collaboration between curators and east coast Indigenous communities whose ancestors witnessed Cook's passage, and is one of a suite of National Museum projects marking the anniversary year which include the Cultural Connections Indigenous community cultural maintenance project and the Encounters Fellowships program for Indigenous cultural workers.

The exhibition produced as part of this engagement will showcase the unique view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from the shore as the Endeavour wound its way up the east coast - a narrative framed by the stories of descendants of those who encountered Cook and his men.

The exhibition will track Cook from Munda Bubul (Point Hicks) in eastern Victoria; incorporating the violent beginnings of the encounter at Botany Bay; the grounding of the ship in Cooktown where Indigenous owners shared their resources with the beleaguered crew; and finishing with Bedanug/Bedhan Lag (Possession Island) in the Torres Strait - the site where on 22 August 1770 Cook claimed the land for the British Crown, despite Indigenous Australians' connections to the land.

Featuring an immersive digital experience by award-winning filmmaker Alison Page and director Nik Lachajczak, the show will invite visitors to feel the gravity and the emotions of the 1770 events, which were a turning point in human history on this continent.

National Museum Indigenous Reference Group (IRG) chair, Fiona Jose, said the Museum has worked with communities whose ancestors encountered the Endeavour, and their voices will ring loudly in the story.

"The Endeavour Voyage exhibition will rebalance the conventional historical record by exploring how this momentous meeting of two great cultures was perceived from both the ship and the shore and its continuing impacts," said Ms Jose.

National Museum director Dr Mathew Trinca, said the exhibition will talk to the power of dialogue.

"The tragic violence surrounding the beginning of the Botany Bay encounter demonstrates a failure of dialogue, just as events in Cooktown just a few months later demonstrate intercultural collaboration and understanding and are described by locals as the nation's first act of reconciliation," said Dr Trinca.

"This anniversary presents an historic opportunity to honour both Cook's extraordinary achievement, and the rich and resilient cultures of this nation's First Peoples, in an effort to understand our shared history - and to use that knowledge as a springboard for a hopeful future," said Dr Trinca.

Under the command of Lieutenant Cook, the Endeavour left England in August 1768 with a mission to travel to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun. Cook also carried secret instructions to search for Terra Australis Incognita - an unknown southern land which was speculated to exist to the south of the Pacific.

Twenty months into the voyage, after an unsuccessful search for this unknown southern land, the Endeavour headed west on the return voyage to England, with the crew getting their first glimpse of the east coast of Australia at Munda Bubul (Point Hicks), in eastern Victoria on 19 April 1770.

Cook first landed on the Australian continent at Kamay (Botany Bay) on 29 April 1770. Two Gweagal men confronted the crew and were fired upon. During the remainder of their stay there Aboriginal people largely avoided the Endeavour's crew.

The ship continued up the east coast making a number of short stops for water and supplies. On the night of 11 June 1770 the Endeavour ran aground on a coral reef and limped ashore at Waalumbaal Birri (Endeavour River) at the site of Cooktown, in north Queensland. For 48 days the crew repaired the ship and waited for favourable wind conditions to continue their voyage. It was here that the most intensive interactions occurred between the Endeavour's crew and Indigenous Australians. This encounter is now regarded as the first act of reconciliation on Australian soil.

After the ship was repaired the Endeavour sailed north, up to and through the Torres Strait, towards the Indonesian archipelago.

Lieutenant Cook became the first European to map the east coast of Australia, claiming possession of the land for the British Crown at Bedanug/Bedhan Lag (Possession Island) in the Torres Strait on 22 August 1770.

After an epic voyage, the Endeavour returned to the English port of Dover on 12 July 1771.

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