If you’re planning a visit to Canberra in the next few weeks, there’s still time to catch an exhibition of Royal Society archives and artefacts at the National Museum of Australia. ‘Exploration and Endeavour’ showcases some of the historical objects from the early period of European activity in Australia and the South Pacific, with particular emphasis on the Royal Society’s role in sponsoring expeditions and scientific research in the area. The Society has lent some of its most precious artefacts for the exhibition, including the regulator (marine clock) carried by Captain James Cook on the Endeavour voyage, and an orrery demonstrating the transit of Venus across the face of the sun.
It was of course to observe the transit of Venus that Cook was sent to Tahiti in 1768. The voyage was sponsored by the Royal Society and the Royal Navy, and Cook carried with him orders to explore and map the landmasses he encountered whilst in the Pacific. He also carried the young Joseph Banks, and it was to Banks that Europeans owed their first descriptions of many of the region’s plants. Banks went on to become a pillar of the London scientific community, and the longest-running President of the Royal Society. But Cook eclipsed him, hailed on his return as an English naval hero. The exhibition displays archives connected with Cook’s second and third voyages, on the Resolution. It was during the course of these voyages that he wrote a famous paper, published in the Philosophical Transactions, explaining how he kept his crew free from scurvy by administering foodstuffs such as ‘portable broth’ and ‘sauer kraut’. After Cook’s death in 1779 the Society struck a medal in his honour, and some of the suggested designs are also on display.
Some of the earliest scientific research undertaken in Australia and the Pacific was done by Royal Society Fellows. The surgeon Everard Home wrote a series of articles about Australian mammals in the early 19th century: his watercolour illustrations of the platypus are included in the exhibition. Another volume contains tables of astronomical observations made at Port Jackson (now better known as Sydney Harbour) in 1788 to 1791, probably the first series of such observations made on the Australian continent. A less obvious contribution to science, but a very valuable document in itself, is a Tahitian word-list with English translations probably compiled in the 18th century. It contains the Tahitian words for a range of everyday things. Apart from Nicolas Witsen’s 1698 account of the Western Australian coastline, in which he describes seeing the fires of native tribes burning at night, this is the only reference to the indigenous peoples of the region whose lives were changed so irrevocably by European contact.
The exhibition ‘Exploration and Endeavour’ is on display at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until 6 February. For further information see the exhibition website.