About Travellers’ Tails

It’s hard for me to believe that Cracked Light Arts is already halfway through our six-month residency with the National Maritime Museum.  We’re part of Travellers’ Tails – a project all about exploration, art and science, which is inspired by two paintings by George Stubbs.  One is of a kangaroo and one of a dingo – they’re the first pictures in Western art of these creatures, and were a product of Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific.

The Kongouro from New Holland
Portrait of a Large Dog

I’m going to make a confession – I’m not a massive fan of old paintings.  I get that they’re important and valuable and all that, but if you’d asked me a year ago what inspires me, I probably wouldn’t have said ‘a 250-year-old painting’.  But what’s brilliant about Travellers’ Tails is that it inspires people – including me – to delve into the stories and ideas behind the paintings.

So when Cracked Light Arts was invited to take over the National Maritime Museum’s pop-up museum in Lewisham Shopping Centre and create interactive arts activities inspired by the paintings, we knew we wanted other people to get as excited by these stories as we are.

We discovered that George Stubbs never saw a kangaroo or a dingo.  He didn’t go on Cook’s voyage, but was commissioned to paint the pictures afterwards.  He was given a description and a kangaroo skin (which he inflated with saline) and had to imagine the rest.  Once I knew that, it suddenly made sense that ‘The Kangaroo’ looks like a fluffy soft toy, and that a lot of people mistake ‘The Dingo’ for a fox.  So, we challenged people in the pop-up museum to draw pictures of Australian creatures just using the short descriptions we gave them.  The interpretations different people have come up with are wildly imaginative, and the process let us all imagine what it might have been like to be in Stubbs’ shoes.

Weedy Sea Dragon – interpretation 1/300

I started reading the diaries of Joseph Banks – a gentleman botanist who’s supposed to have paid well over £1million in today’s money to accompany Cook on his voyage and discover new species of plants and animals.  Despite being written 250 years ago, they’re surprisingly easy to read.  We wanted to find a creative way of sharing the diaries with people in the pop-up museum, so we photocopied pages, cut words out, and invited people to create their own ‘collage poems’.  The poems are really striking – and we’ve also caught people reading whole pages of the diaries we hadn’t cut up yet!

The past three months have been a blur of trying out ideas and meeting brilliant people in the pop-up museum.  We’ve made hundreds of kangaroo and dingo puppets; we’ve told stories and invented new star constellations; we’ve played games with playdough reinventing the evolution of the kangaroo, and drawn portraits and discovered poems.  This residency has given Cracked Light Arts the chance to experiment – now we’re looking forward to the next stage of our residency, as we figure out how to take what we’ve made so far back to the National Maritime Museum.

If you’d like to see what we’ve been up to so far, check out this film…

A Story in Sound

Sound and Waves

There are a wealth of stories to be told about Captain Cook, Banks and Stubbs. The Portrait of a Large Dog and The Kongouro from New Holland are the outcome of an amazing tale of exploration, daring and secrecy. Cracked Light (the Travellers’ Tails’ Artists in Residence) decided to tell some of this story through a sound scape (which can be heard in the popup museum in Lewisham and via the link below).

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine being at sea for nearly 3 years, and to imagine spending the majority of that time hearing the sound of waves swell around you. It’s also hard to imagine ‘discovering’ new places, new peoples, and new cultures with new ways of life and new sounds and music.

One of my favourite sections of Joseph Banks’s journal comes very early on. Within four days of being at sea he had found “a new species of oniscus” (a kind of louse), and this sets the tone for three years of constantly finding new and seemingly alien animals, peoples and lands.

It is with this idea of everything being alien and new, that I ask you to listen to the below soundscape. I like to close my eyes and imagine the scenes as we travel along the journey. It is best listened to on headphones to get the stereo of the waves washing around you, but please feel free to listen to it out loud. The entire trip takes about 25 minutes so you might be able to squeeze it into a lunch break (journeying to Australia in the time it takes to eat a sandwich and have a cup of tea).

The Soundscape that you are listening to tells the story of Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Using details from the journals of Captain Cook and Joseph Banks (and a little artistic license) we follow the course of HMS Endeavor on one of the most daring and secretive missions of its day.

We start in calm English waters, setting sail and heading past Brittany into the Atlantic. From here we head south picking up the ‘trade winds’. As we leave the tropics, the ‘squally’ weather flips between moments of calm and moments of storm. We hear the music of South America as we round Cape Horn and head to Tahiti.

The Endeavor’s original mission was to observe the Transit of Venus as it crossed the Sun. The hope was that, by making these observations, it would be possible to calculate the size of the known solar system. To represent this, we hear Tahitian drums and a rising drone symbolizing Venus’ path across the sun.

No one on board knew that the Endeavor was destined to explore the South Pacific in search of Australia. Captain Cook’s mission was sealed and only when it was opened did he discover that the voyage to Tahiti was a cover for his mission to find Australia. As we journey on, we sail around Tasmania and land on the fabled continent of Australia. The wildlife you hear was recorded about 150 miles from Cook’s first landing. It is quite possible that he would have heard this same dawn chorus.

We now head north, into treacherous waters. Whilst navigating the Great Barrier Reef, the Endeavour sustained heavy damage. The Crew threw anything that wasn’t essential overboard, so they could stay afloat. In the soundscape you will hear a number of large splashes representing this crisis.

Cook landed at various points on the east and north coast of Australia; the peoples he met are represented here by bullroarers and didgeridoos. The voyage did not end in Australia (Cook circumnavigated the globe) but our story ends here, in Australian waters.