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New exhibition reveals untold stories of Cook and the First Australians

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Shona Coyne couldn’t have predicted how timely the National Museum of Australia’s latest exhibition would be when she started curating it over two years ago.

Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians coincides with the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for deeper awareness of Indigenous rights as part of our national conversation.

The exhibition expands on the often one-sided narrative associated with the Endeavour story and is the result of extensive collaboration between curators and east coast Indigenous communities, whose ancestors witnessed Captain James Cook’s historic 1770 passage,

The exhibition honours both the rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that has thrived in Australia for some 65 thousand years and Cook’s passage up the nation’s east coast.

“The Indigenous voice in this story has been largely missing up until now, and I feel this exhibition redresses that imbalance,” Shona says.

Featuring an immersive twelve-minute film by award-winning filmmaker Alison Page and director Nik Lachajczak, the exhibition tracks Cook’s journey from Munda Bubul (Point Hicks) in eastern Victoria, incorporating the violent beginnings of the encounter at Kamay (Botany Bay) and the 48 days Cook and his crew spent repairing the Endeavour at Cooktown, after the ship hit the nearby Great Barrier Reef.

With perspectives from the ship and the shore, the film finishes in Bedanug/Bedhan Lag (Possession Island) in the Torres Strait—the site where on 22 August 1770, Cook claimed the entire east coast for the British Crown, despite the presence of Indigenous Australians.

Alison Page’s short film The Message: The Story from the Shore features descendants of Indigenous people who witnessed Cook’s passage up the east coast and powerfully reimagines the message of the ship’s arrival being passed up the coastline.

Shona says the show invites visitors to feel the gravity and the emotions of 1770, which were a turning point in human history on this continent.

“At the end of the exhibition there’s a section where people can share their thoughts and feelings about what they’ve seen by leaving a written note reflecting on the exhibition experience – this show reminds us about how far we’ve come and importantly, how far we still have to go on some of these issues,” Shona says.

“Some people have said ‘oh my goodness, I had no idea about this history, we were never taught this in our school’, while others have been close to tears. They are just really embracing it. I think some people have preconceived ideas about who Cook was and what happened on the voyage, so this exhibition clears up some of the myths around these events,” Shona says.

Visitors are invited to share their thoughts of how we should mark the anniversary of the Endeavour voyage on these paper figures which are on display to the public.

Alongside storytelling, other key items featured in the exhibition include Nathaniel Dance’s renowned 1773 portrait of Cook; three of the four spears which were collected by Cook/Banks at Botany Bay in April 1770; one of the Endeavour’s cannons; and Cook’s famous journal.

Shona says the exhibition brought up mixed emotions while she and her team were travelling around Australia visiting Indigenous communities.

“For some, Cook is a symbol of dispossession and this is an important part of the story and its legacy,” she says.

Nathaniel Dance’s renowned 1773 portrait of Cook portrait, on loan from the Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom, was commissioned by Joseph Banks and hung over the fireplace in his study for many years. It is arguably the most defining image of Cook and this is the first time is has been displayed in Australia.

She believes the exhibition is an overdue contribution to the national conversation on these issues.

“The exhibition is a way people can learn and talk about this topic in a safe, encouraging and embracing way and as a result, contribute to the broader conversation themselves more fully,” Shona says.

“It’s been interesting how the national conversation has changed throughout this exhibition so far and it will be interesting to see how the conversation continues to change going forward.”

Visitors are invited to share their thoughts of how we should mark the anniversary of the Endeavour voyage on these paper figures which are on display to the public.


What: Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians
Where: National Museum of Australia
When: On now until April 2021
How much: Free, but sessions are timed so tickets must be booked via the NMA’s website
Web: nma.gov.au/endeavour-voyage

Feature image: Museum curator Shona Coyne in front of an installation of spears made by Rod Mason, Senior Dharawal Elder.

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