Lure of the southern seas: the voyages of Dumont d’Urville 1826-1840

Very kind to children, animals and all those who need protection.  A warmly affectionate man who will go to any lengths to help those he considers his friends.  He suppresses anger but if he is really provoked his temper is violent. In regard to the female sex, he is not especially tormented by the baser passions.  His cranial structure is extraordinary such as one rarely encounters.  He should love travel. 

So read the report of Dumont d’Urville’s head by London phrenologist, James DeVille, who catalogued his skull in 1837.

Jules Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville (1790 - 1842), French explorer of the Pacific and Antarctica and a man who was envious of Captain Cook was the subject of an extraordinary exhibition at the Museum of Sydney called Lure of the Southern Seas - The Voyages of Dumont d’Urville 1826 -1840. Visionary yet complex, Dumont d’Urville is remembered for his audacious act of pillaging the Venus de Milo for France, for solving one of the greatest maritime mysteries in discovering the fate of the Lapérouse expedition, and for laying claim to Antarctica.

Curators Sue Hunt and Martin Terry undertook two years researching the life and work of Dumont d’Urville and brought together rare objects from Museums and collections around the world to create the exhibition.

Lure of the Southern Seas continued the Museum’s commitment to investigating colonial encounters relevant to Australia, not only those of the British. It examined Dumont d’Urville’s voyages within the social and cultural world of a France determined to build an empire of Pacific islands and lay claim to the discovery of the south magnetic pole. The voyages under his command (1826 - 1829 and 1837 - 1840) were the zenith of French maritime exploration, colonial ambition and scientific endeavour. Inspired by the achievements of Captain Cook, Dumont d’Urville eventually visited more of the Pacific and Oceania than Cook, Bougainville, or any of his predecessors. Of all Dumont d’Urville’s achievements, the claiming of Adélie Land in Antarctica in 1840 was strategically and politically the most significant.

A highlight of Lure of the Southern Seas was eight incredibly rare portrait busts, of indigenous peoples from the Pacific. These busts, made from life masks, have come from the collection of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and include three from Tasmania.  Dumont d’Urville was passionately interested in physical anthropology, in particular phrenology, and this is examined in the exhibition and the catalogue essays. Also included in this kaleidoscopic exhibition will be 43 beautiful paintings depicting the rich animal and marine life of the South Pacific, Antarctic oil paintings, Pacific artefacts and evocative watercolours of people and places observed on the voyage. ’The diversity of artistic output on these voyages was incredible and much of this material has never been exhibited - even in France’, said Sue Hunt.

In 1842, this grandly named French mariner, who spent much of his life at sea braving the icebergs of the South Pole and the coral reefs of Oceania, died tragically in the first railway crash in Versailles.

A series of contemporary works accompanied the historic exhibit.  Antarctic Exposure featured compelling panoramas by Wayne Papps of the Australian Antarctic division and depictions of the French base Dumont d’Urville by photographer Guillaume Dargaud.

The Viewing Cube featured a specially commissioned art installation made of shells by Sydney artist Ruth Watson called Southern Compass.  Watson is known for her work with historical cartography and here she transformed Dumont d’Urville’s map of the Pacific into a new form.

The exhibition, sponsored by Collex Pty Limited and Vivendi Environnement, was a collaboration between the Museum of Sydney and the Australian National Maritime Museum.  The exhibition was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 141 page publication Lure of the Southern Seas - The Voyages of Dumont d’Urville 1826-1840 published by New Holland ($49.50), with essays by Sue Hunt, Martin Terry, and Nicholas Thomas.

21 December 2002 - 27 April 2003