Gifts to Cook come back to Pacific
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
The largest collection of rare cultural artifacts gathered during British explorer Capt. James Cook's Polynesian area voyages touched Pacific soil yesterday for the first time in nearly 225 years.
As the 350 items arrived in Honolulu they were greeted at the Honolulu Academy of Arts with a Hawaiian blessing.
A three-month exhibition of the Cook/Forester Collection, which has never been displayed publicly before, is to open Feb. 23.
With items ranging from a brightly feathered deity image to ceremonial garb and fishhooks, the collection on loan from Germany's Georg August University of Gottingen offers a glimpse of life in the Pacific during the pre-western 1700s.
Museum director Stephen Little stressed that the exhibit is not a tribute to Cook, who made three voyages through the Pacific before he was killed at Kealakekua Bay on Feb. 14, 1779.
"We recognize that the legacy of Cook's voyages included disease and death for many cultures throughout the Pacific — a fact Cook himself recognized. The purpose of this exhibition is not to glorify Cook but, on the contrary, to celebrate the brilliant cultural and spiritual lives of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific as they existed prior to the first contact with Westerners."
What also makes the show significant, Little said, is that "it demonstrates that all these (Pacific) cultures are connected to each other."
Thirty-five of the objects are from Hawai'i with the bulk of the collection from New Zealand (formerly Aotearoa), Tonga and Tahiti. Other items were collected from sites ranging from the Alaskan coast to the tip of South America.
But some of the Hawai'i objects are among the most significant, including a feathered image of the deity Ku, also known as Kuka'ilimoku, which is made of wicker, bird feathers, dog teeth and mother-of-pearl.
"That's a particularly sacred image," Little said. While there is a similar figure at the Bishop Museum, "this one happens to be very pristine."
Because of the sensitive nature of the image and various other items, the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts was tasked with escorting the items back from Germany.
Blessings, ceremonies and other protocol — as established by group founder La'akea Suganuma in consultation with other experts in Hawai'i and the other Polynesian cultures — were held in Germany and again yesterday when 22 metal crates arrived on two trucks. Additional ceremonies will be held when the items are uncrated next week and again when the display opens.
"Some of the things here are so well done, I think it's going to renew cultural awareness in a lot of people," Suganuma said. "They've survived wars, traveled across the Pacific, you name it."
Most of the items came from Cook's second and third voyages. Upon their arrival in England, they were handed to King George III, the British sovereign from whom American revolutionists won independence.
George, a descendant of a German royal family, gave about 500 artifacts as a gift to Gottingen's institute of anthropology. The institute learned of the items through Johan Reinhold Forster and his son, Georg — German natural scientists who accompanied Cook on his second voyage and helped him collect and document many of the objects.
A small portion of the collection is made up of objects that were collected by and belonged to Reinhold Forster, which is why the exhibit is known as the Cook/Forster Collection.
As far as is known, all the items were given to Cook as gifts or elese were received in exchange for other items. Therefore, Little does not anticipate any criticism of the exhibit.
"The Germans are legally the owners" of the Cook artifacts, Little said. "Everything in the show is either a gift to Cook or traded with Cook for something he had. So there's nothing in the show that was stolen; there's nothing in the show that was a burial object. These were all things that were above ground."
Besides hiring Suganuma's group, Little consulted with several other cultural specialists including kumu hula John Keola Lake, Nathan Napoka and Rubellite Johnson here, as well some of their New Zealand and Tongan counterparts.
Little and local cultural experts also stress that the Cook exhibit items should not be confused or associated with the high-profile court case involving 83 priceless objects that were borrowed from Bishop Museum in 2000 and then placed in the Kawaihae Caves on the Big Island from where they were taken more than a century ago by Westerners.
Suganuma and his group are among the groups who have sued the museum and the group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, which returned the items to the cave. The dispute is currently in mediation. Suganuma and others believe the items should be returned to the Bishop Museum since not all groups entitled to a voice disposition have had a say. The hui believes all the items are burial objects and therefore are now in their final resting place.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hui Malama executive director, congratulated both the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Suganuma for their hard work in bringing the items back to Hawai'i. "I think it's absolutely incredible that these mea kapu (sacred items) get to come back to Hawai'i," he said.
Asked if the items are something Hui Malama believes should stay in Hawai'i, Ayau said he could not comment because it is not an area he is trained in. "It is not our kuleana to comment on that," Ayau said. "The only items we primarily focus on are the items that belong to the dead."
Jon Osorio, the director of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said that if it's clear the items were gifts or exchange items received by Cook, ownership belongs with the German museum.
Osorio, however, added: "It would be an enormously wonderful gesture if those things were housed here permanently." The decision to make such a donation, he said, "is something left up to the conscience of the people in the museum in Germany."
Suganuma agreed, although he quickly noted that was not an issue discussed during his visit to Germany.
"If someday they would want to have them returned I think we would receive them very graciously," he said. And it's not something that people in Hawai'i should ask for. "I think it would be more proper for someone to offer."
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com.