Major Collections and Collectors

How did the Field Museum come to care for one of the most extensive Pacific anthropology collections in North America? Here are a few of the largest contributors to our collections:

Dozens of smaller collections came into the Museum's care via collectors, gifts and purchases. Furthermore, the "major" collectors did not amass their collections alone- explore some of these less prolific, but influential, collectors here:

Unfortunately, anthropology has had a dark history. The collecting practices of the past do not meet our ethical or legal standards today. Our goals and methods have changed as we work to recognize the dynamism of living cultures and the rights of source communities. Learn how the Field Museum works in cooperation with its friends in the Pacific to enrich our collections:


the Fuller collection

  • nearly 7,000 objects

  • features Melanesia, Polynesia, Australia

  • all materials; focus on comparative technology

In 1958, Roland Force, PhD., the Field Museum's Pacific Curator between 1956 and 1961, went to London to meet with a man who had amassed a collection of Pacific artifacts unparalleled amongst his fellow collectors.


Captain A. W. F Fuller was what some today would call an armchair anthropologist, although in his own era Fuller’s passion for collecting was eccentric, but not unknown.  A British “land captain,” he set out to be a barrister but was quickly overcome with his lust for ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific.  Despite his love for these objects and the information they seemed to convey, Fuller never left the armchair. He never saw the Pacific Ocean.


Instead, every day from noon until three o’clock in the morning, Fuller arranged and rearranged his items.  He cataloged and described.  He went to auctions and tried to outbid his rival collectors.  He went to antique stores and was thrilled for weeks after he found an object on sale for far less than its worth.  In fact, Fuller proposed to his wife beside his favorite object in the British Museum and cut their honeymoon short to attend an ethnographic auction.


Every day of his life from 1915 through 1958 was occupied with the clubs, nose flutes, wooden bowls, dancing paddles, and hundreds of other types of objects from across Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia.  Fuller collected through two world wars, the rise of Hitler, the London Blitz, and the beginning of the atomic age.


After much anxiety about where his collection should go upon his death, Fuller finally settled on the Field Museum, a place he knew would have enough space and interest to house and display his collection properly.


the AB Lewis collection

  • collected during fieldwork, from traders, and from local contacts

  • numbers over 12,000 objects

  • highlights Melanesia and coastal Papua New Guinea

The Field Museum has the largest ethnographic collection from New Guinea and island Melanesia in the United States.  Approximately 12,000 of these items were purchased locally in the Pacific by Albert B. Lewis (1867-1940), then Assistant Curator of Melanesian Ethnology, during the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition from 1909 to 1913. 

Lewis had been trained professionally by the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas.  He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1906. 

When he got to Melanesia three years later, he achieved the distinction of being the first American anthropologist to conduct long-term research in Melanesia (his expedition happened nearly twenty years before Margaret Mead's more famous sojourn to Manus in the late 1920s). 

Through four arduous years, Lewis experienced many hardships to carry out his field investigations:  frequent bouts of malaria, a nearly fatal attack of blackwater fever, constant problems with transportation, and a continual scarcity of suitable crates and packing material for shipping his collection home. 

Despite these troubles, Lewis assembled a collection containing thousands of objects that represents every major part of Melanesia then explored. 

This collection is the largest ever obtained from Melanesia by a single field collector.


For further information about this collection, please see:

Robert L. Welsch (1998). An American Anthropologist in Melanesia: A. B. Lewis and the Joseph N. Field Expedition, 1909-1913 (2 vols.). Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. 


the FC Cole collection

  • approximately 5,000 objects from Cole's Philippines expeditions

  • includes over 400 associated expedition photographs 

The Field Museum is home to a valuable collection of over 10,000 objects from the Philippines, one of the largest and most comprehensive Philippines collections in the Western Hemisphere. While this collection contains a number of objects from the heavily Hispanicized societies of the lowland central Philippines, the greater part of the collection originates from tribal peoples of Luzon and Mindoro, as well as tribal and Muslim peoples of Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu.


The highlights of the collection include textiles, personal adornments, weapons, ritual equipment, basketry, woodcarvings, musical instruments, smoking pipes, and export ceramics.


Approximately three-fourths of the objects in this collection were collected during field expeditions between 1907 and 1910 by anthropologists F. C. Cole, William Jones, and S.C. Simms. These expeditions were funded by a manufacturer from Alton, IL named R.F. Cummings. Inspired by his visit to the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, where he was greatly intrigued by the Philippines exhibition, Cummings set out to amass a collection of Philippine objects to display in Illinois. 


The expeditions led by F. C. Cole were quite successful, as he collected over 5,000 objects from various areas of the Philippines. Williams Jones, however, was not so fortunate. He was killed during an expedition in March of 1909 while with the Ilongots in the Caraballo Mountains of eastern Luzon Island. The reasons and motives surrounding his death remain unclear. After news of this tragedy reached Chicago, S. C. Simms traveled to Luzon to complete the work William Jones had begun. 

Of the Philippine objects not acquired on field expeditions, many were given to The Field Museum by U.S. soldiers who served in the Philippine-American War during the early 1900s.

the GA Dorsey collections

  • approximately 4,000 objects from Australia and New Guinea

  • enabled expeditions for other collectors, including Cooper-Cole and Lewis

View selected objects from the collection

While George Amos Dorsey is known for his research on Native North Americans, he was also responsible for the beginnings of the Pacific collections at the Field Museum. He worked primarily in New Ireland, where he collected what he considered interesting ethnological specimens, like painted malanggan sculptures and shell currency - objects he intended to display in order to attract visitors to the Museum.


Dorsey always had the desire to acquire collections from overseas, but lacked funding for travel much of the time. As such, he contented himself to purchase pieces from dealers around the United States and Europe. His early purchases represented Borneo, Burma, the Andaman Islands, and the Nicobar Islands (Welsch, 2003 : 101). It was not until 1906 that he was able to embark on a collecting trip to the Philippines, using funding secured from donor R.F. Cummings. From the Philippines, he traveled on to Java, Australia and German New Guinea.


Dorsey was the first person to graduate with a Ph.D. in Anthropology in the United States. Although he resigned from his curatorship in 1915, Dorsey frequently described the joy and satisfaction he got from his twenty years doing museum work (Almazan & Coleman, 2003: 92).


Throughout his career, Dorsey collected over 20,000 objects for the Field Museum, of which nearly 4,000 come from the Pacific. His support and fundraising also made possible the important collections later made by A.B. Lewis and F.C. Cole.

Written by 2018 Regenstein intern Isabelle Harton




  • objects collected by FM staff and others

  • collected in partnership with the artists, craftspeople and makers of the objects

One of the questions frequently asked by visitors to the Museum is whether we still collect things.  The answer to this question is yes, absolutely.  The discussion that follows usually includes the story of how and why the Museum has built its collections, from its beginnings after the 1893 World’s Fair to what we are doing today. 


While all of the Museum's scientific departments still acquire specimens, we in the Anthropology Department  have been rethinking the procedures and reasons for  adding to our collections, both now and in the future.


While the acquisition of new collections for the Museum still involves obtaining actual objects, our collecting also involves much more..  It includes talking and listening to the people who made and used the objects being acquired to see if we can develop relationships with them that, at least in some cases, can grow into lasting partnerships between the Museum and people out in the Pacific. 


It is important to create such partnerships because many times what is missing for our old collections is the Pacific Islander’s own perspective on what we exhibit, study, and care for.  Their perspective is essential if the Museum is to be relevant to people today and in the future both here in Chicago and in the Pacific. 

If you are interested in making a donation of objects to the museum, please use the Field Museum's standard form.

Background image: Port Moresby by Hitchster. CC BY 2.0 / cropped and desaturated from original

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