Magazine article Geographical

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Magazine article Geographical

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Article excerpt

A major historical exhibition illuminates the diversity of the natural world

DISASTER SEEMED IMMINENT WHEN the Endeavour struck a reef and almost sank while sailing off the coast of Australia in June 1770. It took Captain James Cook -- arguably the greatest of all English sailors -- six weeks to repair the badly-damaged vessel. However, the Endeavour's naturalists wasted no time in exploring the surrounding area, collecting specimens and making notes. They were especially intrigued by a seaman's report of a strange creature. The young and wealthy Sir Joseph Banks excitedly observed that it was, "as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift". The beast in question was none other than a kangaroo -- the first to be seen by European naturalists and just one of many new species found in that part of Australia.

The voyage of the Endeavour from 1768 to 1771, undertaken to study the passage of Venus across the face of the sun, to chart the relatively little-known Pacific and to examine the natural products and produce of far-flung places, is spotlighted in the first major exhibition of its kind at London's Natural History Museum. Voyages of Discovery, running until spring 2000, explores the drama of historical voyages, the voyagers themselves and the extraordinary places, animals, plants and people encountered in distant and unknown lands.

Visitors to the exhibition will not only be able to view some of the stunning paintings and journal extracts from the Endeavour voyage, but also huge, brightly coloured beetles, mounted butterflies, many shells and Banks' own cooking utensils. It thus aims to show how voyages like those of the Endeavour changed humankind's view of the natural world.

The exhibition begins with seventeenth-century Ulster-born physician Sir Hans Sloane, England's first truly great natural history collector. He spent a three-month voyage to the West Indies, observing and recording everything he saw, bringing back to England extensive collections, comprising eight large volumes of pressed plants, as well as shells and beetles. When he died in 1753, at the age of 93, Sloane had accumulated a mountain of material, his library alone containing nearly 50,000 volumes. Anxious that his collections should be properly preserved and accessible after his death, Sloane left everything -- books, manuscripts, letters, preserved specimens and works of art -- to the nation.

Following his death, the government held a national lottery to buy Sloane's works, as well as two smaller collections, and to establish the British Museum. …

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