Many collections existed in Cambridge before the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was formally established in 1884. These were owned by both the city and the colleges. The local Cambridge Antiquarian Society began gathering material in 1839, while a number of Cambridge colleges also had important collections.
The campaign to establish a proper institution to bring these together was led by the local Cambridge Antiquarian Society (CAS), which grew dramatically in the 1870s and 1880s as a result of the efforts of a particularly dynamic secretary. The lobbying resulted in the founding of the museum in 1884, initially named the University’s Museum of General and Local Archaeology, based in Little St Mary’s Lane, behind Peterhouse College.
At its launch the museum had 851 objects from the CAS, mostly from Cambridegshire, and over 1,500 Fijian artefacts from Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon (Governor of Fiji 1875 to 1880) and the Museum’s first curator Baron Anatole von Hügel, of aristocratic and Austrian parentage, who was also passionate about Fijian culture. Other objects came from Alfred P Maudslay, a pioneer of Central American archaeology.
The late 19th century was a vital period for the development of modern human sciences. In the wake of Darwin, Marx and other thinkers who revolutionised our understanding of nature and society, disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology developed new methods and approaches. Alongside developments in archaeological practice in Britain and Europe, these disciplines took advantage of the Imperial Age to became global in reach.
Cambridge scholars, like J.G. Frazer, established wide networks of collaborators among missionaries, travellers, and colonial officials, and used them to gather objects, images, and information relating to native peoples and histories all over the world. This information was assembled alongside information and material relating to the British and European past, leading to classics of comparative anthropology such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890).
Although anthropology was not yet taught in the University, and archaeology was largely restricted to Classical antiquity, research in these fields was fast developing. In 1888 and 1898, two expeditions to the Torres Strait (between Australia and Papua New Guinea) laid the foundations for the development of anthropology as a modern, field-based discipline. These expeditions contributed many artefacts, and a major collection of photographs to the Museum. Today, these collections are of tremendous importance to the heritage of Torres Strait Islanders, a number of whom have collaborated with Museum staff on research, publications, and exhibitions.
Alfred Cort Haddon, leader of the 1898 Torres Strait Expedition, led the development of anthropological teaching at the University, and alongside his colleague W.H.R. Rivers, encouraged students, including Alfred Radcliffe Brown, Gunnar Landtman, John Layard, Bernard Deacon and Gregory Bateson, to collect for the Museum as a crucial aspect of their ethnographic fieldwork.
The Museum’s rapidly expanding collections soon outgrew the space available, and funds were sought for a new and much larger building. Curator Von Hügel (described by one admirer as a “charming beggar”) succeeded in raising the necessary capital, and the foundation stone of the present Downing Street building was laid by his wife in 1910. The new galleries were not fully installed until after the Great War, but by 1913 the building was sufficiently complete for the old Museum to be vacated and for von Hügel and his assistants to move in.
During the 1910s and 1920s artefacts were progressively unpacked and mounted in the Maudslay, Andrews, Keyser, Babington and Bevan galleries, named after key donors and benefactors to the Museum. At around the same time, a series of rare and important collections made during the three 18th-century voyages of Captain James Cook entered the Museum through various deposits and donations.
When von Hügel became ill, Haddon, who had always played an active role in running the Museum, acted as his deputy until a new curator was appointed in 1922. Von Hügel’s successor as curator was Louis Clarke, a connoisseur and collector who had taken the Diploma in Anthropology at Oxford under Robert Marett and Henry Balfour. Clarke had been involved in important excavations in Kechipaun in New Mexico and, like von Hügel was a major benefactor to the Museum. Under his tenure important archaeological and anthropological collections were acquired, largely through the field research of Cambridge-based scholars.
Thomas Paterson, an Arctic scholar, assumed the Curatorship in 1937, and was in turn replaced by the archaeologist and Americanist Geoffrey Bushnell in 1948, who remained Curator until 1970. His successor was the Pacific archaeologist and ethnologist Peter Gathercole, who presided over a major reorganization of the Museum’s storage and research facilities, before handing over to African archaeologist, Professor David Phillipson in 1981. MAA’s present Director, Nicholas Thomas, was appointed in 2006.
In 1984 the World Archaeology gallery was refurbished and in 1990 the top two floors of the Museum were renovated to display the anthropology collection and major temporary exhibitions. In 2012 the Museum went through a major refurbishment of the ground floor to create a new gallery of Cambridge Archaeology alongside a bright new temporary exhibition space and shop. Also provided was a new main public entrance onto Downing Street – something planned for over 100 years!
While maintaining a strong base in research and teaching, the Museum is now genuinely a public institution, welcoming families, the Cambridge community, and visitors to the city, as well as students and scholars.
While our historic archaeological and anthropological collections will always be central to the Museum, our major photographic collections are receiving increasing curatorial attention, MAA is becoming renowned, not only for our wide-ranging collaborations with Indigenous communities, but also for innovative exhibitions drawing contemporary art into dialogue with the historic collections.