Artefacts of Encounter: Cook's Voyages, Colonial Collecting and Museum Histories is a striking collection of photographs and essays about the Early Pacific collection at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (maa). With its large format and glossy images, this volume may seem like a coffee-table book. However, the essays and extensive catalog within make this project a valuable resource for any scholar studying the material cultures of Oceania, histories of collecting and museum display, and colonial contact zones.
The editors form a powerhouse of scholars and curators: Nicholas Thomas, maa director, well-known scholar of Oceanic history, and author of numerous books including Colonialism's Culture (Princeton University Press, 1994) and Entangled Objects (Harvard University Press, 1991); Julie Adams, curator of Oceania at the British Museum; Billie Lythberg, an Auckland-based art historian; Maia Nuku, associate curator for Oceanic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Amiria Salmond, former maa curator and author of Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Together, this group of curators, anthropologists, and art historians has compiled an exciting and refreshing look at objects from the Cambridge collection, which, with over two hundred objects, is one of the most important collections of Captain James Cook's voyage artifacts worldwide.
The book is divided into five parts, beginning with part 1, "Encountering Artefacts." This section includes an introduction by Thomas and Adams and three essays by other members of the editorial team. The first of these was written by Thomas and describes the history of the maa Pacific collection and how this history is a part of each story told by these objects of encounter. Simon Schaffer's contribution broadens the scope of "artefacts" to include scientific instruments aboard European ships. In their essay "Relating to, and through, Polynesian collections," Lythberg, Nuku, and Salmond suggest a way of studying these artifacts not as remnants of the past but as "vectors of still-active ancestral agency, even as living ancestors" (44). Using three case studies—Māori cloaks, Tongan ngatu (bark cloth), and Tahitian tamau (plaited belts)—the authors examine in detail the process of making these objects and how this relates to notions of genealogy. For example, in looking at ngatu, the authors describe how in Tongan conception humankind [End Page 236] is made of layers, just as ngatu is made of layers of bark cloth pounded together.
These introductory essays are followed by photographs of select objects with brief but detailed analyses written by individual members of the team. These sections are arranged chronologically according to major expeditions in the Pacific. Part 2, therefore, focuses on objects from Cook's first voyage in 1768, while part 3 showcases Cook's second and third voyages in 1772 and 1776, respectively, as well as Captain George Vancouver's expedition in 1791. Part 4 highlights objects collected by missionaries and travelers from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Part 5 concludes the book with a catalog of the maa Pacific collection, complete with a photograph of each item and brief descriptions of objects not mentioned in the body of the book.
By selecting a small number of objects to examine in detail rather than attempting a comprehensive account of the Cambridge collection, the book departs from other catalogs that are often formulaic in their effort to paint a "complete" picture. Instead, the book's structure reflects how the editors, during their research in the Cambridge archives, "looked at things together, observing each other's reactions and responses, and voicing thoughts, questions, doubts and confusions" (20).
The essays in Artefacts of Encounter, therefore, reflect these conversations, reactions, and questions. Some essays focus on the provenance of the object, following its trajectory from an initial encounter between European explorers and local Indigenous communities to the cataloging and display of the object back in Europe. For instance, Adams...