Captain Cook Birthplace Museum reopens!

As I said in my last post, the last few weeks have been a total treat for lovers of history and museums, with the reopening of the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum after its renovation, and the launch of the Tokyo to the Tees: Middlesbrough and Japan 1877-1939 exhibition at the Dorman Museum. So, having covered the new Dorman exhibition in my last post, today I’m going to talk about the Cook!

After a period of renovation during the winter, the museum reopened on 1st June with its new exhibition Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Natural history collecting on Captain Cook’s voyages.

A lot of the renovation work has involved the education facilities, so it’s not something that everyday visitors will notice, but it’s no less important – the museum provides fabulous education opportunities for local schools, and the new ‘mess deck’ area will really improve the experience that children get.

Plus, with the education area newly refurbished and increased in size, it also now includes last year’s super popular Walkabout exhibition.

Education sessions are now fully booked, with the first school group having visited this past week, and we’re sure they’ll all have a Cook-tastic time! (Cook-tastic is a word, honest… 😌 #cheese)

Now onto the new exhibition…

With the internet at our fingertips, it’s almost impossible to imagine a situation in which we might see an animal we don’t recognise and know nothing about, but that was the reality for the crew on Cook’s voyages – no checking Wikipedia or Snapchatting a photo and asking for help! Because of that, it was important to have people recording all of the plants and animals they saw, both in words and by creating detailed drawings. Imagine being an explorer and coming across this strange-looking creature (a Flying Fox), with no idea what it was or whether it could bite and poison you… 😱

Not only that, but explorers also bought unusual and exotic specimens home with them, sparking a craze for collecting animals which continues today (as the exhibition name suggests, just look at Pokémon Go!)

The exhibition also includes a breathtaking replica of the type of cabin which would have been used for the examining and recording of specimens collected by the scientists aboard the Endeavour. We don’t want to give too much away, so we’re not showing you the inside of the cabin, but here’s the outside – even that is stunning, and is based on historical references of ships from the time.

Last but not least, you all know that it’s (almost) impossible for a Love Middlesbrough Lass to write a post without some mention of food and/or cake, so here it is! We were extremely excited to hear about the newly opened Cook’s Cafe, and of course had to try it out when we visited.


We weren’t disappointed, especially with the ice cream (salted caramel 😍😍). There’s a mega range of sandwich and panini fillings, plus breakfasts (you can never go wrong with a cooked breakfast), sausage rolls (gotta love a good sausage roll), and cake (goes without saying that the presence of cake makes us very happy).

We can definitely vouch for the deliciousness of the quiche, and Love Middlesbrough Lass Claire, who is a connoisseur of sweet potato fries, was very impressed with the bowl we shared (plus you get an absolute heap of them so great for very hungry people like us!)

The pricing is really good too, fab if you’re taking a family there.

We’d definitely recommend it – a perfect end to a fantastic morning or afternoon exploring the museum ❤️


Pint of Science

We are bang in the middle of a festival of science that links Middlesbrough with cities across the world and brings science and scientists into the more homely and comfortable setting of the pub.

“Pint of Science is a non-profit organisation that brings some of the most brilliant scientists to your local pub to discuss their latest research and findings.”  The great thing from the audience point of view is that you don’t need any prior knowledge, and it is a real opportunity to meet the people who could be the future of science (and have a pint with them).

Pint of Science runs over a few days in May in cities throughout the world from Brazil to Australia to 21 locations in Britain, including Dickens Inn, Middlesbrough. Specific topics are selected and Pint of Science, Middlesbrough has opted for Planet Earth. Programmed here by Teesside University Dr Dave Errickson, this forensic archaeologist has opted for the broadest interpretation of Planet Earth including even North Yorks folklore and the mysterious Hobs.

Tonight, (Tues 16th May) in conjunction with Middlesbrough Local History Month we have Cooking Up Local Stories and Folklore with two local favourites, Middlesbrough Museum’s Phil Philo and BBC Tees Bob Fischer. Phil will be bringing Captain Cook’s natural scientists and their incredible finds under the 21st century microscope in Gotta Catch ‘Em All. Bob will be delving into the shadowy half world of the hobs and other mythical creatures that were a very real part of rural life for the people in North Yorks Moors as he goes Hobnobbing with the Hobs.

Tomorrow night (Wed 17th May) in the same Dickens Inn venue we fly off in two very different directions again.

Spacecraft: Writing in Another Dimension – poet Harry Man has collaborated with astrophysicists, neuroscientists and ecologists, creating new interdisciplinary work which is poetry Jim, but just not as we know it.

Explore how one poem began its journey here on Earth only to be blasted into space and placed in orbit around the planet Mars, and new frontiers in adventures in the English language that evolved into poems specifically designed for those with dyslexia, poetry without words, and poetry made to be read as it slowly dissolves into the ocean or melts in the open air.

Amy Carrick River Tees Officer with Tees Valley Wildlife Trust asks: How Many Bats Can You Fit in a Pint Glass? Answer, “At least 30 (but make sure you drink the beer first!)”

Amy will tell us about all the small mammals of the Tees Valley and what the Trust is doing to monitor them. Some questions she may or may not answer are: How do we know what bat is where and what they are jibbering on about? How do we know where otters like to chill out on their couches? How do we know what water voles have for their tea?

Expect plenty of visuals with all these talks and the chance to get up close and personal with ideas, myths, facts, science and the our planet earth.

Both fun and fact packed evenings are just £4 and can be booked ahead online to ensure you have a comfortable seat to listen and a space to park your pint. Doors 6:30pm. Event 7:00-9:00pm Pint of Science




Local History: The Death of Captain Cook

236 years ago this Valentine’s Day, Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay in Hawai’i.

In January 1778, the crew of Resolution, captained by James Cook, and Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke probably became the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian Islands, arriving to a warm welcome to the island of Kauai.

Later in the year, Cook visited Kealakekua Bay, on the island of Hawai’i, when the Hawaiians were engaged in a festival dedicated to Lono, their fertility god.

The circumstances of Cook’s arrival led the Hawaiians to attach important cultural and perhaps even religious significance to the visit. Cook was given presents such as highly valued capes and helmets, and was honoured by priests at an important holy site.

The Europeans were certainly given a celebratory welcome, with the Hawaiians providing the crew with gifts and willingness to trade. George Gilbert, aboard the Resolution, described how the crew were ‘supplied by the Natives with provisions, in the most plentifull and hospitable manner imaginable’. Cook himself wrote that King Terreeoboo ‘made me a present of two or three small pigs and we got by barter from the other people some little fruit.’

On February 4, 1779, the British ships set sail for the North West coast of America, on the next leg of their search for the Northwest Passage. However, they were forced to return to Kealakekua Bay a week later after a storm damaged the foremast of the Resolution. Their return was not welcomed in the same way by the Hawaiians. Their stay was tense and, according to accounts, characterised by thefts and mischief. This culminated in the theft of the cutter from Discovery. Cook decided to take King Terreeoboo on board his ship and keep him there as a hostage until the cutter was returned. During his attempts to take the king aboard his ship, tensions rose and a large crowd gathered as the islanders suspected that Cook would kill him, despite the king reportedly willingly joining Cook.

As reports came in that a chief had been killed on the other side of the bay, the crowd became anxious and restless. Upon being threatened by a warrior, Cook fired two shots, and killed him. Fighting broke out. Cook turned his back to communicate to the boats, and Gilbert writes in his account: ‘One of the Chiefs more daring than the rest steep’d behind and stab’d him betwixt the sholders with an Iron Dagger, another at that Instant gave him a blow with a club on the head by which he fell into the water; they immediately leapd in after and keept Him under for a few minutes then hauld him out upon the rocks and beat his head against them several times; so that there is no doubt but that he quickly expired.’

Four of Cook’s crew and around twenty Hawaiians were also killed in the skirmish. These were Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private John Allen, Priavte Thomas Fachett.

Following Cook’s death, Clerke took charge and completed the repairs to the ships. In accordance with Hawaiian culture, the islanders treated Cook’s body with great respect, in a ritual usually reserved for the highest elders and chiefs, including cleaning his bones and removal of the flesh, and kept at an important holy site by the Hawaiians. Those that were returned to the crew were given a formal burial at sea on the 21st February 1779, complete with full Royal Navy honours, flags flown at half mast, and a salute of cannons fired.

Image: Bartolozzi’s engraving Death of Cook based on drawing by John Webber ©


Phil Philo Message in a Bottle: Communication at Sea in the Time of Captain Cook

It was an anniversary of the Bottle of Notes statue last year and like Phil Philo, Senior Curator of Middlesbrough Museums, I was asked to speak a few lines on film about the statue. The statue that stands titled in the ground outside mima was created by internationally acclaimed artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s. It captures some of the spirit of Middlesbrough’s history by evoking the voyages of Captain Cook and capturing some of the words from his ship’s logs in Teesside’s industrial lifeblood, steel.

But for all their research Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen appear to have been totally unaware that Captain Cook actually used a bottle of notes to communicate whilst at sea. And amazingly enough it worked.

Last week Phil Philo delivered a lecture on Communication at Sea in the time of Cook for Discover Middlesbrough. In this lecture Phil revealed the incredible story of the message in a bottle but first transported us back to the 18th century and the terrible difficulties of communication at sea. For his voyages of discovery Cook was going off the charts, he might as well have been going into space as he would be totally on his own, without back up and outside any means of communication. When Cook rounded the southern tip of Africa on his second voyage he sent a letter back to England by frigate, the only means for possible speedy delivery of news. It would be his last communication for two full years.

Phil told us that ship to ship communication could be just as fraught with difficulty. Simple messages and commands could be transferred by use of flags, such as Nelson’s famous message before Trafalgar. What I didn’t realise was that Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was already the pride of the navy that Cook served in with such distinction.

Yet flags were far from foolproof as there were several different languages and they would be no use at all in foggy weather. This would be a real difficulty for Cook when he used two vessels in his second voyage of discovery. In the month’s they explored for a southern continent they needed to resort to cannon fire and the lighting of fires on deck to keep in contact in the ice strewn and stormy waters of the southern ocean.

Phil explained to us how Cook and the commander of the Discovery Lieutenant Furneaux arranged a rendezvous at New Zealand should they become separated. This worked once but on the second occasion Furneaux failed to show up and so Cook buried a bottle with his exploration plans in a bottle beneath a tree. The tree was scratched with advice to look below. Wouldn’t you just know it but the Discovery finally arrived just after Cook and the Resolution had given up the ghost and Furneaux did indeed look below the tree to find the bottle of instructions.

This was such an entertaining talk by Phil, painting a picture of a Royal Navy that was a huge organisation. Far bigger than today. One warship alone could carry 800 men on board. The navy at that time had a massive fleet and manpower would be massively boosted up at times of war. In the 18th century the next naval conflict was never far away. You really have to wonder just how a pre-industrial economy managed to finance it.

This was a fascinating afternoon in one of my favourite buildings anywhere, The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Having been brought up at Marton and taught at Captain Cook Infant and Junior schools Cook is in my blood. Thanks to the work of Phil Philo and his faithful museum crew the great explorer will continue to find a place in the heart and minds of many more citizens of Middlesbrough and those that sail here from far beyond.

As for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen their choice of a Bottle Of Notes was more symbolic of Cook than they could ever have imagined. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.



James Cook, Canada West, Middlesbrough and All That…

If you have ever wondered about the people that fashioned the giant totem poles guarding the entrance of Captain Cook Birthplace Museum then Thursday evening’s talk by senior curator, Phil Philo on Captain Cook and Canada’s west coast had many of the answers. This was the final talk in the series of Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers programme kick started by the sell out Sir David Attenborough address at the Middlesbrough Theatre on “The Lost God of Easter Island.” It was a fascinating conclusion to a series of spotlights on aspects of Cook’s progress through his three great circumnavigational voyages of discovery.

This talk focussed on the third and final voyage, where the goal to try and find the fabled North West Passage was ultimately beyond even the great Cook. Mind you it was not until the early 20th century that anyone managed to cut a path through the Arctic ice and pick a route around the north of North America. Cook gave it a good try and as with his attempts to sail to the lost continent of the south he pushed on further than anyone before. If Cook couldn’t find a North West passage, Europe should really have realised that there wasn’t going to be an easy, worthwhile way to sail around Canada.

The third voyage is of course the voyage that claimed James Cook’s life on Hawaii but as Phil Philo pointed out there was an incredible amount of information and knowledge gathered from a mission that visited Canada, Russia and even China as well as many Pacific islands. Skilled artist John Webber recorded the peoples and the places visited with a series of detailed and revealing sketches and paintings. Eyes into many worlds now long lost.

Cook sailed into the vast sounds and fjord like waters off Canada’s west coast needing to replenish his supplies and replace a damaged mast. For the next month he and his crew explored the region around Vancouver Island and traded with a people that were very keen to barter for everything. Cook recorded in his log about a people that lived in a balance with the surrounding nature. They rowed boats and lived in houses of giant logs, dressed in clothes and hats fashioned from the bark and offcuts from trees of the forest. There were many examples of their skilful craving of the local wood, large house sculptures would later mature into the full scale totem poles once more metallic tools had found a place in their culture. Metal knives and large ship’s nails were top of the list of the items the Nuu-chah-nulth natives wanted in return for food, water, animal pelts and the wood for the ships.

Phil Philo told us that the name Nootka itself was probably a mistake, the local people called this out when they came out to reach Cook in their boats when he first arrived. They were probably telling him to go round the island to a better anchorage and he mistook it to be the name for their island.

A great thing about these slide talks is that as part of your £5 entry fee you can go into the museum and see examples of the artefacts collected by Cook. There are modern copies of the conical hats, with their whaling illustrations and the face masks worn as hunt decoys but there is also an original carved item collected from the voyage itself. It is amazing to actually see this.

Phil Philo explained that Cook always collected by trade. The expedition of the 18th century was in some ways far more enlightened in its foreign affairs than 21st century missions. Therefore when native people arrive from the Pacific or Vancouver area they are happy to see the artefacts on display in Middlesbrough. Even though in some cases these items could be the earliest survivals of an almost lost culture, there is a connection between our peoples and they are happy that through these artefacts they are in their thoughts. I love that idea. We are very lucky here in Middlesbrough to have these bridges to other cultures and societies right across the other side of the world.

Having been brought up in Marton and attended Captain Cook School I am obviously biased when I say Captain Cook Birthplace Museum is the best museum there is anywhere but I seriously think it takes some beating. Not only is this a celebration of the life and work of a remarkable man that was born into humble beginnings but also throws out hundreds of link to the wider world past and present.

This series of talks have been fascinating for revealing the back stories behind different aspects of the amazing collection. We can take our hats off not only to the feats of science and seamanship of Cook and his crew but also for the incredible skills of many of the native peoples encountered and their symbiotic relationship with nature that nurtured them.

I hope there will be more talks with the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers and through following in the footsteps or fathoms of James Cook Middlesbrough can continue to explore its unique place in the wide world.

Incidentally Phil points out at the end of each talk that there is a considerable library of books in the museum and they can be available as a study resource if booked ahead. Next week, Wiremu Puke, a traditional New Zealand Maori craftsman is arriving at the museum and from Tuesday to Thursday he will be finishing a replica of a sculpture collected by the great 18th century botanist Joseph Banks, when he was travelling with Cook. You can watch Wiremu at work with traditional stone chisels before colouring the work, the same techniques Cook observed 250 years ago. Wiremu will be presenting the finished item for permanent display at the museum. Do get along to see him at work.