Collections

Telling the tales of birth, sex, feasting, death… and ironing boards

There are around 1 million objects in the Museum: a figure so enormous that is hard to visualise so many artefacts! Unfortunately we only have room to display  1% of these. And when it comes to listing the collections at the Museum, there are so many it is almost impossible not to miss some grouping of great interest. But we will try: here are highlights of the six largest and most important collections. These are not necessarily located in one place, but across different themed areas across the three (CHECK) floors of the Museum.

For an overview of types of object, curatorial philosophy and provenance (correct?) of our objects, go to About.

For an overview of what can be found where, go to Galleries.

1. Cambridge Collection

The Museum has the best collection in the world of artefacts from East Anglia. It includes finds from prehistoric hunters tens of thousands of years ago through to beautiful Anglo Saxon jewellery, to fascinating Roman finds from the Cambridge John Lewis dig, just at the end of the street. Many of these tell stories from the Cambridge Colleges, and are now house in the recently created Cambridge gallery.

Amongst these is the ‘Wrong Collection’: this is a large collection of ordinary-looking stones that were believed to come from the Eolithic era, in the early part of the Stone Age. However, what were thought to be marks made by human hands turned out to be simple weathering. They were not tools, just rocks, like the stones you can find in any garden.

2. Collection of Captain James Cook

The Museum has particularly rich holdings of objects collected by Captain James Cook on his voyages round the world. Between 1912 and 1927, a series of rare and important collections made during the three 18th-century voyages of Captain James Cook entered the Museum; these were through various deposits and donations, some via Trinity College. They include more than 200 objects from Tahiti, New Zealand, Tonga, the Austral Islands, Hawaii, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Australia, Tierra del Fuego, Siberia, and North America.

3. Oceania Collection

Our XX?, 0000 object from Fiji is the most important outside Fiji itself. These reflect the interest of the Museum’s first curators and their associates.

4. Prehistory Collection

Uniquely comprehensive are our collections from world prehistory, particularly from the Palaeolithic era (2,000,000 to 100,000 years ago). In the introductory case is a stone chopping tool, 8cm long, that dates back to the hominid ancestors of modern man 1.8 million years ago. Found in Tanzania, it was used to crush bones and cut roots. It is the fact that these early people made tools of this sort again and again that distinguishes early man from animals – that use implements only opportunistically. It was collected by the renowned archaeologist Louis Leakey.

5. Mundane objects

By contrast to grand ceremonial objects, many objects are mundane: a Viking ironing board, a Roman make-up container (with remnants of rouge), medieval beer jugs, and an implement for Anglo Saxons to clean their ears.

6. Photo Collection

The Museum holds over 220,000 photographic objects, one of the largest and most significant anthropology and archaeology collections in Britain. The Museum has always collected photographs, viewing them as important sources of information. Our earliest photographs were taken in 1860 by Louis Allen Goss, a school inspector working in Rangoon, Burma. The collection travels through the late 19th and early 20th century – when there was significant developments in the way photography was used – through to the modern day with recent works by contemporary anthropologists and artists. Many photographs are on regular display; the reserve collection can be seen by appointment.

[Goss photo or photo of Katya working. Can you supply please]?

See also:

Haven’t some of the objects been stolen?

What is the geographical spread of the collection?

What is Archaeology? What is Anthropology?

How does material get collected today? How have practices changed?

Which objects have not been seen before?