Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Expedition Exhibition Opens Window to the Past Scientific Endeavors of Captain James Cook

A window into the scientific endeavours of Captain James Cook has opened at the National Museum of Australia.

Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas features documents and objects from the society which reveal the role it played in the exploration and early documentation of Australia.

The exhibition, curated by Michelle Hetherington, celebrates the 350th anniversary of the society's establishment.

Navigational instruments form the Endeavour, Resolution and Adventure, letters from Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders and a mechanical planetarium made in about 1760 to demonstrate the principles of the transit of Venus, are on display until January 30, 2011.

The society petitioned King George III for assistance to send an expedition into the largely uncharted South Seas to observe the transit of Venus in 1768, Ms Hetherington said.

The King swiftly approved funding to send astronomers and also provided a fully-stocked Royal Navy ship to take them, the HMB Endeavour.

The petition is included in the display, one of several letters not normally seen outside the society's London base.

"The bulk of the material in the exhibition has come from the Royal Society," Ms Hetherington told AAP on Wednesday at the launch of the exhibition.

"They've also lent us a number of beautiful scientific instruments including a wonderful 12 inch astronomical quadrant."

But it is the letters that offer a greater insight into some of the achievements of the crew.

An extraordinary letter from Captain Cook outlines the success he had in preventing scurvy in his crew, which resulted in the preservation of countless lives at sea.

"It's in his hand and it's in his expression," Ms Hetherington said.

"You can see where he's crossed out a word and said `no I'll use this other one instead, it captures what I'm trying to say better'.

"It's got his beautiful signature at the end, with a wonderful flourish.

"To actually look upon a document like that I think it actually connects you back to the experiments that he was effectively conducting on board with his sailors."

The earliest items in the exhibition about Australia is a letter from Dutch diplomat cartographer Nicolaas Witsen.

In it he reports the discoveries of his countryman Willem de Vlamingh's expedition along the West Australian coast in 1696-97, including the existence of black swans.

"The exhibition is a beautiful example which demonstrates the very strong connection between science, culture and history," National Museum of Australia director Andrew Sayers said.

The contact with "real things" in the exhibition created a strong connection to the past, Mr Sayers said.

Australia's chief scientist Penny Sackett said in today's world of technology it was amazing to imagine a time when Captain Cook undertook his voyages in the South Sea.

But the exhibition was a reminder of the advances made during the expeditions and the integral role science has played in culture and society, improving maps and making other important observations.

"And how the two connect," Professor Sackett said.

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