From where I sit: A history of collaboration

December 17, 2009

James Cook and the Discovery of the South Sea, currently running at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, is one of the finest exhibitions I've ever seen. Ingeniously displaying some 600 exhibits - artefacts, utensils, weapons, paintings, sketches, maps and ship models - from 40 different collections and donors, the show (bilingual throughout) is unique in that it reassembles for the first time much of what Captain Cook brought home from his three voyages, objects that were then scattered all over Europe in the late 18th century.

Why is this exhibition running on the Continent, and why in Germany first? (After February, it will travel to Vienna and then to Berne.) Amazingly, the biggest Captain Cook collection in the world is still at the University of Gottingen, and other German institutions host remarkable Cook collections, too.

This is connected to the fact that the two leading scientists on board the HMS Resolution were Germans: Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, a prodigy who was still only 19 when they set sail in 1772. It fell to Georg to write, as expert Neil Rennie opines, "the best-written account to issue from all three of Captain Cook's voyages".

A landmark of holistic travel writing, uniting ethnographical observations with scientific data and philosophical reflections, Georg Forster's A Voyage Round the World (1777) was written in English and only later translated into the author's native German.

The Forsters, says researcher Harry Liebersohn, were "the outstanding ethnographers of the late Enlightenment". But all their learning would have led to nothing had they not been invited to replace Sir Joseph Banks on Captain Cook's second voyage. It was only this British enterprise that allowed them to realise their full potential.

Travelling back to Munich via the Rhine Valley, I thought about British-German research co-operation today. In the sciences, collaboration is the norm, but what about the humanities? I do not know too many colleagues who are collaborating with their peers across the Channel, nor does this seem to be a subjective impression.

To remedy the situation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the German Research Foundation (DFG) signed an agreement in December 2007 to facilitate collaborations between humanities researchers in the UK and Germany.

Having started in 2008, the programme will run for three years, with an annual budget of £2 million. Not much, but in its first round a quarter of all proposals were given the green light. All one needs is an eligible researcher in the other country, and a good project, of course, which can then be funded for up to three years. Since proposals must not be longer than 20 pages, the investment of time does not seem excessive.

The deadline for projects starting in autumn 2010 was 30 November, but proposals for the programme's third year can be submitted any time before 30 November 2010. And there is a good chance that it will be extended beyond 2011, according to Guido Lammers, programme director at the DFG.

At least the Germans think it should continue. They have a similar agreement with the French, although the number of applications is three times as high as in the AHRC-DFG scheme.

So there is room for growth. Meanwhile, the money is there for the asking, almost. Captain Cook and the Forsters took far greater risks.

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