Early Pacific Collections


When the World’s Columbian Exposition ended at the end of October 1893, the newly founded Museum became the recipient of the majority of the anthropological and natural history collections that had been assembled.  In addition to the numerous donations of collections, many other valuable collections were purchased from both domestic and foreign exhibitors.  The anthropological collections originating from the World’s Fair numbered some 50,000 specimens of which between three and four thousand objects formed the Museum’s original collection from the Pacific Islands.  These initial holdings from the Pacific included notable collections received from the K.K. Naturhistorisches Hofmuseum in Vienna, Austria (over 1,000 specimens), J. G. Peace from Melanesia (over 900 specimens), Carl Hagenbeck (nearly 800 specimens), and Otto Finsch (over 500 specimens). 

George A. Dorsey, who served as Assistant Curator between 1895 and 1896 and as Curator until 1915, recognized that the Department of Anthropology began its existence with many extensive and important collections.  He also realized that there were large gaps existing in those collections that needed to be filled.  Between 1905 and 1907 Dorsey purchased the first of several collections from curio dealers including two collections from W.D. Webster that contained 355 items from the Pacific and a collection from J. F. G. Umlauff of Hamburg, Germany, including 3,284 pieces from the Pacific Islands.  Though his own efforts and those of others whom he directed, the Museum amassed a huge collection of objects, especially from North America and Oceania.  Dorsey would leave behind a legacy of helping to build the Museum’s Pacific collections to rival and stand in comparison to the best and largest of those across the globe.

In 1908 Dorsey made the Museum’s first trip to the Pacific when he undertook a whirlwind collecting trip around the world that stopped in German New Guinea for 2 months.  This trip resulted in an additional 3,537 objects for the Anthropology collections from New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, and Australia.  Most importantly, it was on this trip that Dorsey decided that Melanesia was a promising area in which to study and collect, prompting him to send A.B. Lewis on the most ambitious collecting venture ever undertaken by the Museum.  After Lewis had departed, Dorsey also continued to increase the Pacific collections, making purchases that included a 3,015 piece collection from ethnologist Richard Parkinson, and two collections totaling 3,034 pieces from Captain H. Voogdt of the New Guinea Compagnie, both of whom he had met on his trip around the world in 1908.

Image above: Malanggan (also malagan) figure - carved and painted wooden bird with outstretched wings holding a serpent in its beak from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.  Catalog Number 967.98641.  Received from J. F. G. Umlauff.  © The Field Museum, A110311c, Photographers Ron Testa and Diane Alexander White.


Image above and collection thumbnail: Canoe from the central Solomon Islands.  A photograph that was probably displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 as it accompanied the J. G. Peace collection (Accession 9)exhibited at the Fair. © The Field Museum, CSA18176, Photographer J. G. Peace.


Image above: Ruatepupuke II – This wharenui or Maori meeting house from Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand was included in the collections purchased by George A. Dorsey from J. F. G. Umlauff in 1905.  Catalog Number 967.143961.  © The Field Museum, A112518c, Photographer .