A.B. Lewis was born in Clifton, Ohio in 1867 and went to graduate school at Columbia University where he studied under Franz Boas. In 1907 George Dorsey recruited and hired Lewis to work at the Field Museum. A.B. Lewis served as Assistant Curator of African and Melanesian Ethnology between 1908 and 1935 and as Curator of Melanesian ethnology from 1936 until his death in 1940.
A.B. Lewis left Chicago on May 8, 1909, with Fiji as his first destination and with the primary objective, as instructed by Dorsey, to assemble a display worthy museum collection from the southwestern Pacific. Lewis was the first American anthropologist to do extensive fieldwork in the Pacific and, with practically every region of Melanesia represented, ended up amassing the largest ever single field collection from the region. With his desire to make a systematic collection that was as complete as possible in types, varieties, and specimens, Lewis also created a research collection that would document cultural variation along the New Guinea coast and among the islands of Melanesia. In addition to the objects of material culture, Lewis also kept diaries, sketches, and field notes, took numerous photographs, and recorded anthropometric measurements. Together these collections and documentation provide the only comprehensive museum collection from Melanesia in the United States and one of the most systematic collections from the region made before World War I.[i]
Melanesia began to be frequented by researchers by the end of the nineteenth-century who conducted similar expeditions to that of A.B. Lewis. Melanesia was far from the isolated and rarely visited region our modern biases may suppose it to have been and as each expedition moved from place to place, nearly everyone collected curios and ethnological specimens along the way.[ii] Anthropologists of the time were cognoscente of a growing curio market and the role it played in the production of museum specimens, even in areas as remote as German New Guinea. Lewis was interested in documenting traditional ways of life and was therefore focused on obtaining older pieces as opposed to those that reflected change and acculturation. These older objects were presumed to be freer of the contaminating influences of the global commoditization of objects and to represent the time before this curio market, pacification, plantations, labor recruiting, and missions had affected “traditional” life and “customary” crafts.[iii]
In order to make as complete a collection as possible Lewis also bought collections from traders, missionaries, and colonial residents or left money with numerous individuals, such as photographer and merchant John W. Waters of Fiji, planter and trader Wilhelm Gramms of Hansa Bay, German New Guinea, and trader Thomas C. Stephens of Vanuatu, to assemble specimen types or representative collections from communities he could not visit or obtain himself. The largest of such collections came from Komine, a Japanese trader based in the Admiralty Islands. In October of 1911, Lewis visited Komine in Rabaul, New Britain and purchased his collection of more than 3,000 artifacts; 2,000 from the Admiralty Islands but with material from nearly every other part of German New Guinea including New Ireland. Another fortuitous contact for Lewis was Mrs. Phebe Parkinson, then widow of Richard Parkinson. Not only did she obtain more than 75 items for Lewis, including twenty large Sulka dance masks from New Britain, she also introduced him to several other contacts that would facilitate the acquiring of additional specimens and visits. No less than fifteen shipments from others were expected to arrive in Chicago.
A.B. Lewis returned to Chicago in June of 1913 to find nearly all of the more than three hundred crates ready to be unpacked and their contents of over 15,000 thousand artifacts numbered, cataloged, and organized. Together with collections from the World’s Fair and those acquired by Dorsey on his trip and through purchases from dealers and other collectors, the Museum now possessed over 31,000 objects from the region; the world’s largest collection of such artifacts. While Lewis wouldn’t accomplish the task of processing these collections alone, he also prepared exhibit cases by selecting specimens and writing labels for the Museum’s exhibition halls. These monumental tasks would occupy the next six years of his life.
In July 1919, after he had completed cataloging his collection, one more shipment of over three hundred items from the north coast of Dutch New Guinea, delayed by World War I, arrived from the missionary Reverend F.J.F. van Hasselt of Manokwari. That same year Lewis would begin to prepare the Pacific collections for their move to their permanent home in the new building whose construction had commenced in 1915 on reclaimed land at the south end of Grant Park. The collections would move by rail and truck beginning May 1920 and Lewis would focus his time on preparing the Joseph N. Field Hall for the Museum’s reopening on May 2, 1921. During his lifetime A. B. Lewis was best known for four achievements: his expedition, his collection, his monograph (The Ethnology of Melanesia), and the large Melanesian exhibit he installed in the Joseph N. Field Hall which remained much as he had designed it until the hall was closed for renovation in 1986[iv].
For further information about this collection, please see: Robert L. Welsch (1998). An American Anthropologist in Melanesia: A. B. Lewis and the Joseph N. Field Expedition, 1909-1913 (2 vols.). Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
[i] Robert L. Welsch, “An American Anthropologist in Melanesia: A.B. Lewis and the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition 1909-1913”, 1998, p.573.
[iv] Welsch, p.557.
Image above: Detail of Sulka hemlaut mask from Gazelle Peninsula of Eastern New Britain, Papua New Guinea collected by A.B. Lewis during the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition 1909-1913. Mask depicts praying mantis formed from plant pith, under the mask's umbrella, on the sides are claw-like shapes representing the insect's forelegs; painted patterns suggest legs and wings. Catalog Number 1113.138910. © The Field Museum, A111295c, Photographer John Weinstein.
Image above: Man with Sulka hemlaut mask on lawn outside of Mrs. Richard Parkinson's house in New Britain in September of 1910. Mrs. Parkinson assisted A.B. Lewis in many ways on his Expedition, obtaining more than 75 items for the Museum’s collections that Lewis purchased. Catalog Number 1113.138910. © The Field Museum, CSA33584, Photographer A.B. Lewis.
Image above: Sulka hemlaut mask - now on display in the Museum’s Pacific Spirits Exhibition. Catalog Number 1113.138910. © The Field Museum, A111293c, Photographers John Weinstein and and Diane Alexander White.
Image above and collection thumbnail: A. B. Lewis portrait in white suit and hat, June 1910. © The Field Museum, CSA33645, Photographer A.B. Lewis.