Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

+44 (0)20 7323 8041

Anthropology Library and Research Centre 
+44 (0)20 7323 8031

History of the collection and department


Sir Hans Sloane’s founding collection at the British Museum included both ethnography and antiquities. Most ethnography was included in a catalogue of Miscellanies, numbering 2100 items, of which 100 are still found in the Department of Africa Oceania and the Americas.

Until the return of the Third Voyage of Captain James Cook to London in 1780, the ethnography and antiquities were displayed in classic Cabinet of Curiosities style. From 1780 a South Seas Room displayed ethnography from the Pacific.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ethnography and world antiquities were organised geographically. This display lasted from 1808 for half a century. Then for a hundred years, from the 1860s, ideas of social evolution provided the intellectual basis for display and research.

In the twentieth century, Asian antiquities were removed from the department to a separate Department of Oriental Antiquities. The Department of Ethnography, (1946-2004) supported the collections from most of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, as well as those from generally small scale societies in Asia and Europe.

In 2004 the structure and title of the department changed as disciplinary definition was replaced with the simpler geographic designation of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Asian, Middle Eastern and European collections became the responsibility of the other relevant departments.


Two editions of a general guide to the British Museum described the ethnographic collections in the eighteenth century. From 1808 more than fifty editions of the Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum detailed the gradual growth of the ethnographic displays and by 1858 a pamphlet describing the Arctic collections of the 1850s appeared. This was effectively the first departmental publication.

A W Franks, curator from 1851, and later the keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities (then including ethnography), befriended the private collector Henry Christy. In 1862 and 1870, guides to the Christy Collection were printed, followed by photographic folios in the 1870s. This collection was housed separately until after the departure of the natural history collection to South Kensington, London in the 1880s.

Significant research and publication of the collection only began during A W Franks’ last years in the 1890s, after the appointment of C.H. Read to work on the Christy Collection. Two voluntary assistants at this time, James Edge-Partington and O.M.Dalton contributed to the cataloguing of the collection, particularly from Oceania.

James Edge-Partington published the first major comparative introduction to Oceanic weapons, using his own collection, now in New Zealand. Dalton, who started work at the Museum in 1895, began compiling The Handbook of the Ethnographical Collection, eventually published in 1910. This guide was completed by T.A. Joyce who had joined the department in 1902. He followed this two years later with A Short Guide to the American Antiquities in the British Museum. Joyce also organised and wrote the official guide for the exhibition in 1923 of the Maya collections acquired by A.P. Maudslay in Guatemala and Mexico in the 1880s. This exhibition became a permanent fixture in the British Museum until the Second World War.

Joyce followed up his interest in the Maya by undertaking a series of British Museum expeditions to British Honduras (now Belize) between 1926 and 1931. Joyce complemented his publications about Middle America, with introductions to the archaeology of Central America and the West Indies.

It was also Dalton, Read and Joyce who began work on the African collections. Apart from a small number of unique objects in the Sloane collection, the first significant African collection came to the Museum in 1818 with the private West African collection of Thomas Edward Bowditch.

During the last third of the nineteenth century, following imperial expeditions in what are now Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, significant African collections were brought to the Museum. Most notably after the Benin expedition of 1897, 1000 brass plaques were placed in the British Museum for dispersal, 200 of which remain in the collection today. In 1898 a photographic folio of Benin antiquities was issued by Dalton and Read.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Joyce began a decade of collaboration with the Belgian administrator and anthropologist Emile Torday in the Congo. Their work was summarised in the 1990 exhibition Emile Torday and the Art of the Congo.

In 1921 Ethnography was brought together with Ceramics in a single department with Joyce serving as deputy keeper responsible for Ethnography. Twelve years later this became the Department of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography.

Joyce retired in 1938 and H.J. Braunholtz became keeper. He was effectively in charge of the ethnographic collections throughout the Second World War. Adrian Digby joined the department in 1932 and, in an unpublished memoir written after he retired, vividly documented the evacuation of the ethnography collection to Drayton House in Northamptonshire during the war years.

In 1946 Ethnography became a department in its own right with Braunholtz as its first keeper. For the next 24 years, the department grappled with the problem of trying to adequately store and display its growing collection. Three further collections were added to it through some of the most prominent private collectors of ethnographic objects. The first came from the widow of H.G. Beasley, in 1944, the second from W.O. Oldman. A selection of the vast amount of material amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome was donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1954.

Adrian Digby became keeper in 1953. He was chiefly interested in the Maya, although he had responsibility for the archaeology and ethnography of the whole of the Americas. He excavated the site of Las Cuevas in Belize in 1957. William Fagg, keeper from 1969, had joined the department just before the Second World War and went on to become an eminent authority in African art.

By the end of the 1960s a solution to the department's lack of space was found. A building was acquired in Shoreditch to accommodate the reserve collections, while space in London’s Burlington Gardens also became available. This became the Museum of Mankind, the department's exhibition area and administrative centre. A library and study room were also set up in this building and a museum shop and lecture theatre added.

After the appointment of Malcolm McLeod (keeper, 1974-1990), the focus of collecting became more defined. Emphasis was placed on trying to fill gaps in the collection, wherever possible, through fieldwork. This was intended to properly record changing contemporary indigenous societies and to form the basis of future exhibitions and collaborations with originating communities. At the same time, the department continued to acquire significant collections by the traditional means of donation and purchase.

For 27 years the Museum of Mankind, with its frequently changing programme of exhibitions and activities was the public front of the department. A series of small ethnographic exhibitions, part of the BP sponsored Ethnography Showcase, opened with Mexican Textiles from the Everts Collection in 1996. It ended with Souvenirs in Contemporary Japan.

After the Museum of Mankind closed, the Ethnography department continued to highlight its collection at the British Museum. Major exhibitions were organised, including Maori (1998), The Golden Sword: Sir Stamford Raffles and the East (1998), and more recently: Unknown Amazon: Culture in Nature in Ancient Brazil (2001-2) and Light Motifs: an Aomori float and Japanese Kites (2003).

The department returned to Bloomsbury in 2004, but new galleries showing the department’s collection had been opening there since the 1990s. Mexico was the first in 1994, and was followed by North America in 1999. The Sainsbury Africa Gallery opened in 2001, and the Wellcome Trust Gallery followed in 2003, with the exhibition Living and Dying, as the hub gallery for the department.

Planning for the new galleries, and the creation of the Centre for Anthropology (now called the Anthropology Library and Research Centre), was the work of John Mack, Keeper 1990-2004, with his two deputies Brian Durrans and Henrietta Lidchi.

Since 2005 a number of important exhibitions have been outstandingly successful. These include Power and Taboo (2006), about religion in Polynesia, and Fabric of a Nation (2007) which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Independence of Ghana through 150 printed textiles.