Transit of Venus


An exhibition with Daniel Boyd

A partnership between the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, Macleay Museum, and The Sydney Observatory.

Curated by Matt Poll, Assistant Curator Indigenous Heritage, Macleay Museum and Zanny Begg, Director Tin Sheds Gallery, the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning.

A ballast stone from The Endeavour, shells gathered from Tahiti, a human skull, a telescope, a series of rare books including an 1893 edition of Captain Cook’s journal and 1875 edition of the Observations made of the transit of Venus, some stuffed parrots – these are some of the items from the Macleay collection that will be on display in the Tin Sheds Gallery during the exhibition The Transit of Venus. The objects have been chosen by Daniel Boyd and will be combined with his own paintings, video works, installations and drawings to explore the impact of the Transit of Venus on Australian history.

June 6, 2012, marks the second anniversary of the Transit of Venus since Australia was colonized in 1788. The Transit of Venus is a rare astronomical event (that occurs in a repeating pattern of two transits separated by eight years every 243 years) that led Captain Cook to Tahiti, on his way to Australia, in 1769. The last Transit of Venus was observed in 2004 and the next one after the 2012 transit will be in 2117.

Observations of the Transit of Venus were important for early scientists to enable them to determine the size of the universe. The desire to measure and map the far reaches of the outer universe coincided with a desire to map and colonize the “new lands” of Oceania and the South Pacific: a fact evidenced by Captain Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour being jointly sponsored by the Royal British Navy and the Royal Society (one of the world’s oldest scientific organisations, founded in 1660, to further understanding of the natural world). Captain Cook was officially dispatched to Tahiti to observe the Transit but his mission included a “sealed packet” with subsequent instructions to sail onto to Terra australis ingognita. 1

The Transit of Venus – An exhibition with Daniel Boyd presents an opportunity to revisit the consequences of Captain Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour assessing its ramifications, not just for the Aboriginal people of Australia, but also more broadly for our understanding of the connections between science, art, astronomy and geography.

The role of astronomy in transforming the Catholic Church’s grip on medieval Europe cannot be overestimated; it was only in 2008 that one of the founders of modern astronomy, Galileo Galilee, was officially pardoned by the Church that denounced him as a heretic over 400 years earlier for his insistence that the earth revolved around the sun. Among the world’s Indigenous peoples, this knowledge was not particularly new, perhaps the most famous example would be the Aztec Calendar which clearly depicts the sun at the centre of our universe. Across numerous Indigenous knowledge systems, in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands, and the African continent, there was an understanding of the relationship between the sun, the planets, and the earth – this knowledge appears in creation stories, maps, and in the navigational prowess that enabled Indigenous explorers to migrate across the vast distances of the sea.

For Captain Cook and the Royal Society accurate data on the transit of Venus was obtained by calibrating several observations, from various parts of the world, into single coordinates thereby striating the world within a grid that has become the blueprint for modern geopolitical mapping of the continents. This knowledge was both used to map the far reaches of the cosmos and the expanding terrain of colonization on earth: Naval Officers of the 18th century akin to the astronauts of today, heading out into unknown territories, hoping to bring back scientific discoveries and glory for the home country.

But while Captain Cook has received the credit for the ‘discovery’ of Australia, it should also be noted that he relied on the invaluable experience of the Tahitian navigational expert Tupea to first find and survey a map of New Zealand but to then also make his way across to the eastern coast of the Australian mainland. On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Transit of Venus we can look again at the experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous explorers, scientists and artists and revisit previously held assumptions about knowledge and our place in the universe.

Artist Daniel Boyd first came to prominence with a series of works that subverted the narrative authority of Australian history paintings by questioning the legitimacy of the heroic explorer. He has recently returned from a residency at the Natural History Museum in London and his works are held in the collections of The National Gallery of Australia, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, The National Gallery of Victoria, The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, The National Gallery of Victoria and The Art Gallery of New South Wales. In this solo exhibition he will work with items from the collection at the Macleay Museum to explore the significance of the Transit of Venus for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of the universe.

Public Programs:

June 14th 6.30pm, Tin Sheds Gallery

Human Remains: Museum Object or Crime Scene? A discussion on the repatriation of human remains from museum collections. Daniel Boyd, artist in The Transit of Venus and Matt Poll, Sydney University Repatriation Project.

June 21 6.30pm, Tin Sheds Gallery

Mapping the size of the Universe: The Transit of Venus, Dr. Andrew Jacob, Astronomy Curator Sydney Observatory, Powerhouse.

Offsite events at The Sydney Observatory.

1.  Nick Lomb, Transit of Vensus 1631 to the Present, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney: 2011.