A fresh look at Cook: Anchorage Museum opens 1st major exhibit to focus on Captain Cook's voyage to Alaska

The mission was ambitious and dangerous: to explore new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations and, in the captain's own words, go "farther than any other man has been before me."

This was Captain James Cook, not to be confused with the fictional Captain James Kirk, though the similarities are numerous. Each counted on new and untested technology, the loyalty of their crews, their own wits and the advice of terse, calculating, aloof junior officers -- one named Spock, the other named Bligh.

Each encountered people whose language and culture had nothing in common with their own and found ways to communicate with them. Each journeyed boldly into unknown territory, the "final frontier."

In June 1778, that included most of Alaska.

In search of a northern shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and Great South Sea, now known as the Pacific, Cook sailed past the Kenai Peninsula and came to a dead end. He stood on the deck of his ship peering at the horizon with his sextant to ascertain his latitude -- 61 degrees north.

He consulted his elegant marine timepiece and deduced that he was nearly halfway around the world from Greenwich, England. He raised his telescope to his eye and glassed the land to the east, the first European to look at the place where Anchorage would someday rise above the mudflats. Then he went to his cabin and, quill in hand, made notes of what he had seen in his journal.

For the next several months, the sextant, the telescope and the journal are back in Alaska as part of "Arctic Ambitions" at the Anchorage Museum. The multifaceted show is the first major museum exhibition to focus on Cook's voyages to the North Pacific and Arctic Ocean.


Completing his map

When Cook set out from Plymouth, England, on July 11, 1776, he was probably the most famous sailor in the world. He had already commanded two epochal expeditions that mapped the South Pacific, surveying Australia, New Zealand and the coast of Antarctica.

He could have retired; some biographers have gone so far as to say that he was tired and depressed, pressured into reluctantly taking on a third voyage that he felt was more than he could handle. Historian and museumologist Robin Inglis of British Columbia holds an opposite view. He thinks that after establishing the parameters of the South Pacific, Cook was able and eager to undertake another voyage into uncharted northern latitudes to finish the grand project begun in the first expeditions and fill in the quarter of the globe that remained blank to the literate world.

"The third voyage would let him complete his map of the whole Pacific," Inglis said.

Another incentive was his role in the expedition. On the first two voyages he sailed with noble naturalists who figured they were in control. This time, he would have indisputable command without gentlemen scientists or patrons who considered him a hired hand.

"There were no civilians on the third voyage," Inglis said. "Everyone was navy." They clearly understood his authority as captain.

Military order appealed to Cook, a veteran of the British conquest of Quebec. Relatively little is known of him as a private person, but Inglis described his character as being "quite focused."

"He was fastidious, but tolerant, very disciplined with a kind of iron-ness to him underneath it all."

He was also lucky. On one occasion his ships, the Resolution and Discovery, barely avoided crashing against the cliffs of the Alaska Peninsula in fog and foul weather. Chukchi ice floes nearly trapped and crushed the wooden vessels. Masts snapped in storms. Steering jammed. A precious anchor was lost at the mouth of Kachemak Bay.

By the time he turned south, off Icy Cape in the modern North Slope Borough, he had sailed farther north than any European ship in history and delineated the northwest coast of America in stunning detail.

"He revealed Alaska cartographically, in words, descriptions, drawings," Inglis said.

Cook carefully charted more than 2,000 miles of Alaska coastline, from southeast to the Aleutians and northward past the Arctic Circle. Major features that he literally put on the map include Norton Sound, Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet.

"All that was done in one season, between April and August," Inglis said. "It was an incredible achievement. Suddenly the Pacific took on the shape that we all know."

First contact impressions

And yet that great work has taken a back seat to a shock discovery that wasn't part of the plan -- Hawaii.

Making a beeline for the north to start the search for the Northwest Passage, the Resolution and Discovery arrived in what Cook named the Sandwich Islands. The encounter astonished both Polynesians and Europeans. In the 250 years since Magellan had entered the Pacific, the chain had escaped detection by western ships. Among the curious Hawaiians who swarmed the ships was the future King Kamehameha, who made close observations of the marvelous technology he would someday use to gain control over the islands.

Natives of British Columbia, Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet likewise met their first Europeans when Cook's ships arrived. They are depicted in fine sketches and paintings made by John Webber, the official artist of the expedition.


Webber not only recorded the minutiae of clothing, tools and adornment, he had a knack for capturing the personalities of his subjects. Surely the artist in him was intrigued by the exotic look of these "new civilizations." But his portraits have undeniable dignity, revealing degrees of seriousness, uncertainty, humor and humanity. Some were dashed off on the spot and convey a snapshot-like immediacy. To look at them is to come as close as possible to having been there at the moment of contact.

The meetings in Alaska appear to have been conducted with mutual cordiality and respect. Cook's men had to put in for extensive repairs in Nootka Sound and Prince William Sound where the Americans welcomed them with song, gifts and trade.

Things had gone well enough in Hawaii the first time the English showed up. But when the ships limped back from their voyage to the Arctic, things turned sour and Cook died in an altercation. The circumstances have become the subject of debate and romanticizing, which contributed to a tendency to overlook his accomplishments in North America.

When James Barnett -- president of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, co-sponsor of the exhibit -- became interested in Cook many years ago, he was surprised to find Cook's Alaska exploits treated as a footnote.

"In 1978, in fact all the way up to the 1990s, it was pretty clear that scholarship ended in Hawaii," Barnett said.

A previous Anchorage Museum exhibit about Cook was less than satisfying, Barnett said, due to limited information and material. But attitudes have changed, he said. "There's been a lot more analysis since then."

Hosting the treasures

The museum has also changed, with recent expansion and improvements that make lending institutions feel more comfortable about sending their treasures to Alaska. A rare Chugach chief's hat given to Cook, for instance, would probably not have been entrusted to the museum 20 years ago.


"With the upgrading and, especially, the Smithsonian Collection, the Anchorage Museum has been propelled into another level," Barnett said.

Inglis said the facility's climate control, security and other assets have made it more and more renowned. "When I approach people in the Lower 48 or Europe and inquire about borrowing something from their collections I'm able to say the Anchorage Museum is the real deal," he said.

And so it is that "Arctic Ambitions" is the first time Cook's journal has left the vaults in Great Britain since his ships returned home, 235 years ago. The fact that the British Library shipped such an artifact to Alaska speaks to the confidence they have in the Anchorage venue.

It's also an acknowledgement that Alaskans may have something to say about the English national hero. "We are the world's experts on Cook in the North," Barnett said.

The exhibit, with its maps, historic items and interactive displays, is accompanied by a spectacular book, similarly titled "Arctic Ambitions," by Barnett and David Nicandri (University of Washington Press). It includes beautifully illustrated scholarly essays on the voyage and its ramifications. These include considerations on how the Northwest Passage could eventually become a major shipping route, the impact of climate change on the Arctic and Cook's place in history as seen by indigenous people.

Addressing the latter, the Anchorage exhibit will include a series of talks and discussions described as "interventions." In these, Alaska Native artists will create new work in response to the main exhibit. A multiartist performance organized by Sonya Kelliher-Combs will take place on Friday, April 3. Da-ka-sheen Mehner will present new artwork on June 5. Rapper/performance artist Allison Warden will be featured at a date to be determined.

Museum curator Aaron Leggett will present the Cook Inlet Historical Society's lecture on April 16, "The Arrival of the Underwater People: Captain Cook and His Crew Meet the Dena'ina," specifically looking at the implications of the first contact between Europeans and Natives of Cook Inlet.

There's no shortage of controversy regarding Cook's connection to Native populations. The marker at the spot where Cook died in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, is continually being defaced by his detractors and rebuilt by his fans.

"He's something of a lightning rod for all that went wrong after contact," Inglis said. "Some people see him as an agent of empire. But you can't blame him for racism and what followed him."

Barnett said that there are more than 200 monuments to Cook around the world, in big cities and remote islands. Most are treated with respect and even pride. They stand as reminders of the farm boy (another Kirk attribute) whose ambitions led him to the limits of the known world and beyond, whose primary motive, in the opinion of Benjamin Franklin, was nothing more or less than to acquire knowledge that would benefit all mankind.

The statue in Anchorage's Resolution Park is one such reminder. It has a duplicates in Australia and in Whitby, England, Cook's adopted hometown and Anchorage's sister city.

Next to the Whitby statue is second memorial, an arch made of whale ribs. It's a gift from the citizens of the Municipality of Anchorage and the North Slope Borough, a tangible symbol of how far Cook went using only the wind.


ARCTIC AMBITIONS: CAPTAIN COOK AND THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE will open at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 27 and remain on display through Sept. 7 at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. The exhibit will next travel to The Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma where it will be on display Oct. 16-Jan. 10.

Other Anchorage events include:

Opening reception, 6 p.m. Friday, April 3. Free.

The Anchorage Museum Gala, April 11, at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, will have a nautical theme. Tickets start at $150 and are available at

Museum Interventions: Alaska Native artists create new work in response to the exhibition, 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 3 and 6 p.m. Friday, June 5. Free.

Arctic Ambitions Dinner, with a private after hours showing of "Arctic Ambitions," followed by a three-course dinner inspired by Captain Cook's voyages, 6 p.m. Sunday, April 5. Prix fixe menu with wine pairings is $79. Make reservations by calling 929-9210.

Anchorage Centennial Symposium, a three-day event covering Captain Cook and other aspects of Anchorage history, with guests that include the mayor of Whitby, England, and the head of the Captan Cook Memorial Museum in that city, June 18-20. Seating is limited and reservations should be made online at

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.