The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge has one of the most important collections of its kind in the UK. Originally founded in 1884, it has been in its present location on Downing Street since 1913. Major redevelopment in 2012 included the building of a new front door as well as refurbished ground floor galleries, allowing new visitors to discover this previously hidden University museum.
MAA’s collections span nearly two million years of human history, on all six inhabited continents. Our oldest object is a 1.8 million year old stone tool from Olduvai Gorge, whist the newest are made by contemporary artists. The anthropology and photographic collections are enhanced by collaboration with indigenous communities.
But MAA is not a dusty museum about the ancient past. It is also about contemporary life all over the world, and works with modern-day indigenous communities in all kinds of ways. It is particularly known for its innovative exhibitions that draw contemporary artists into dialogue with the historic collections.
MAA holds extremely strong collections from the Pacific, including one of the largest collections of objects from the voyages of Captain James Cook, and the most important collection of Fijian material outside Fiji itself.
It also has an extremely strong collection of Anglo Saxon material from Britain, and its collections of world prehistory, particularly from the Palaeolithic era (2,000,000 to 100,000 years ago), are uniquely comprehensive.
Many of the objects are highly personal, representing the acts, beliefs and creativity of different peoples at crucial points of life: birth, sex, death and feasting.
MAA’s collections don’t just represent other places and the remote past, but also more recent histories of Britain, and the travels and migrations of British and European travellers, scientists and collectors, who shaped the global society we now inhabit.
Archaeology and Anthropology are connected and complementary ways of studying humans and human behaviour. Archaeology attempts to reconstruct human behaviour in the past from the traces it has left in the present. Anthropology tends to study human behaviour in the present. Both frequently involve attempting to understand the artefacts made by people in the course of their lives, and it is these artefacts that the museum collects.
MAA has been a base for teaching and research within the University of Cambridge since 1884. The collections have been built up by students and researchers undertaking archaeological and anthropological fieldwork, as well as by alumni who went on to become colonial administrators, missionaries and navigators.
The work of the museum is still primarily funded by the University and in pursuing this, MAA attempts to build on the experimentation and innovation long associated with the University of Cambridge.