A. W. F. Fuller Collection


In 1958 The Field Museum purchased one of the most extensive and valuable collections of Pacific artifacts ever assembled; Captain A.W.F. Fuller’s collection of 6,884 objects of material culture.  This collection included 3,517 items from Melanesia, 2,509 items from Polynesia, 671 items from Australia, 184 items from Micronesia, and 3 items from general Oceania.  The acquisition significantly expanded the Museum’s Pacific holdings and in subsequent years, Fuller’s wife Estelle would donate an additional 334 items that her husband had collected.  Fuller and his wife also compiled a library, now located at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, of over 20,000 volumes.

Alfred Walter Francis Fuller was born in England in 1882, the son of clergyman Reverend Alfred Fuller.  In 1896 his father purchased his first object, a Fijian club, and was most likely from whom he inherited his interest in natural history, collecting, and the pursuit of knowledge.  After serving as a Captain in the military during World War I, Fuller was later transferred to the Army Reserves on due to a hearing impairment.   After retiring from this service in 1921, and on account that he could not pursue his legal career as a solicitor due to his partial deafness, Fuller decided to devote himself entirely to his collection, one that, not even in death, would he become separated from.

Because of the special relationship between Great Britain and Polynesia in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th, more Polynesian artifacts found their way to England than to any other part of the world.[i]  English explorers, missionaries, traders, and colonists played an important role in documenting, through observation and the acquisition of objects, the cultures of the South Seas in these early days of European contact.  Fuller never set foot on the islands of the Pacific himself and rather formed his collection though discriminating purchases and occasional fortunate gifts and exchanges of outstanding specimens over a period of sixty-two years.  Sales in private homes, the selling up of inventories of small provincial museums throughout England and Scotland, the famous auction rooms of London, and the shops of dealers both in Britain and on [the mainland of Europe] were the sources of the pieces which came to comprise his collection.[ii]

In some instances Fuller acquired a single specimen and in others he secured an entire collection.  The principal sources of the Fuller collection artifacts are numerous to list, however, some were acquired by Fuller from the collections of Colonel Loftus Thackwell, J. Edge-Partington, E.L. Gruning, Percy H. Edmunds, Martin Kennard, Mr. Hemming, Mrs. Spencer Gollan, Walter Chamberlain, Lord Amherst, Admiral Sir James Erskine, Naval Surgeon Seecomb, Lord Avebury, and the Chichester Museum.  The great 19th-century missionary movement in Great Britain resulted in fine pieces being obtained from the endeavors of the London Missionary Society and the Melanesian Mission Society.  Missionaries such as Reverend Dr. R. Wardlaw Thompson, the Reverend William Wyatt Gill, and the Reverend James Calvert are connected with the early acquisition of the Fuller Collection artifacts in the field.[iii]  Numerous other additions to his collection were received from friends and scholars such as A.C. Haddon, dealers such as W.D. Webster, and fellow collectors and competitors such as Harry Beasley and William O. Oldman.

Fuller did not only seek to obtain the oldest, largest, singular, or most aesthetic of specimens.  Throughout the formation of his collection Fuller paid close attention to the study of comparative technology and the evolution of design.  Fuller’s collection therefore includes varieties of all types of materials and arrays of object types that exemplify this guiding principle.  As a result, many Museums across the globe expressed interest in acquiring his collection when it was learned that Captain Fuller was seeking a scientific institution to house his collection in its entirety for future study, exhibition, and preservation.  As early as the mid-1930s Fuller was concerned with the ultimate disposition of his entire life’s work.  It was Percy H. Edmunds that introduced Robert Trier, a contributing Member of the Museum, to Fuller and Trier who introduced Fuller’s collection to The Field Museum.

Roland W. Force traveled to London with his wife Maryanne to negotiate the acquisition of Captain Fuller’s collection.  Fuller, who was reluctant to sell the collection on the grounds that he was not a dealer and therefore not commercial, eventually did so, at what he considered at cost, only in order to provide care for his and Estelle’s daughter after their death.  The Field Museum also agreed that the collection was not to be broken up as it was the Fullers’ hope to have continued care for an intact collection that would be utilized both for exhibit and scholarly efforts.  On July 31, 1958 71 crates containing Fuller’s collection left London via freighter and a month later arrived in Chicago.  In 1959 a preliminary showing of the collection was assembled and in 1961, Force reinstalled the Polynesian and Micronesian exhibit in 1961, using a large number of Fuller specimens.  Force finished the catalog of the Fuller Collection in 1971 after he left the Museum to serve as Director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii.

While in London, Force discussed nearly every single object in the collection with Fuller, recording dates and means of acquisition, object types and descriptions, provenance, and stories that Fuller had amassed about his collection, collecting adventures, and fellow collectors.  In 2003, and at the direction of John Edward Terrell, current Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology and curator of Oceanic archaeology and ethnology since 1971, The Field Museum contracted a firm specializing in the preservation of archival audio material to transfer about 150 sonoband recordings from its archives into a digital format.   As a result we are able to replay these old analog recordings that captured Fuller and Force’s discussions, commentaries, and histories about his collection and preserved them in a new digital format so that they can now be heard again for many generations to come.

For further information about this collection, please see:  Roland W. Force & Maryanne Force (1971). Fuller Collection of Pacific Artifacts

[i] Roland W. Force & Maryanne Force, “The Fuller Collection of Pacific Artifacts”, 1971, p.3.

[ii]Force & Force.


[iii]Force & Force, p.8.

Image above: Mask from Northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea collected by A.W.F. Fuller (originally given to the Chichester Museum by Miss Newman of Midhurst, England in 1859.  This wooden mask, with opercula eyes, fiber hair, and painted with red ochre, lime, and black pigment, is one of the earliest known masks from New Ireland.  Catalog Number 2616.276499. © The Field Museum, A114455_02d, Photographer John Weinstein.

Image above and collection thumbnail: Alfred W. F. Fuller in England with his collection, holding in his hands two whale bone harpoon heads from the Marquesas Islands. © The Field Museum, A96661.