The two decades before the 1st World War was the greatest period of contact, exploration, and cultural exchange in Melanesia. Following their systematic programs of colonization, Holland, Germany, England and France laid claim to these varied islands in order to further their political, if not economical interests. Researchers and scientists were dispatched to learn about the ‘new’ lands, and they found an incredible variety of peoples, languages and cultural practices. Coinciding, this was also the period where major schools of anthropology were founded by the likes of Boas, Haddon and Rivers. They along with their pupils and colleagues worldwide, formulated strategies and structures for understanding what was deemed exotic and foreign. Anthropology at this time sought to answer questions about the development of humankind, and it was thought that indigenous societies provided keys to further comprehension. Anthropologists analyzed social frameworks and attempted to make ordered collections of the physical objects created by their subjects. Museums played an important role in that they were often the official bodies sponsoring research among indigenous peoples and they were the repositories of the newly collected material culture that was required to illustrate anthropological perspectives. Museums during this pre-War period very actively sought cultural artifacts, and were often in competition with each other to secure the most important collections and dramatic specimens. Unlike Polynesian culture which had by then almost a century of acculturation and Micronesia with its many difficult to visit small islands, Melanesia was a vast treasure trove of untapped possibilities, and it was here that many large scale collecting expeditions took place. Chicago’s Field Museum was a young institution that sought its place among the older and established museums of the East Coast and Europe and in 1908 the curator of anthropology, George Dorsey, made a tour of the world that included a two month stay in German New Guinea. While the museum had acquired Pacific island artifacts on the international curio market, notably from Umlauff in Hamburg, Dorsey saw the opportunity of acquiring interesting artifacts directly in Melanesia, and of collecting them systematically. On his return to Chicago, Dorsey convinced the museum’s director and trustees to mount a major collecting expedition to Melanesia by suggesting that a large number of specimens and artifacts could be gathered quite cheaply in comparison to international market prices and in comparison to other areas of scientific endeavor. He also suggested that the public display of the numerous artifacts would burnish the reputation of the fledgling institution in the eyes of the wider museum community as well as of the local public. In the spring of 1909, Alfred Buell Lewis, Dorsey’s newly appointed assistant curator, left Chicago for what turned out to be one of the Field Museum’s most important field research projects, and on his return, the over 14,000 objects became the largest gathering of Melanesian artifacts ever made in situ.

A.B. Lewis spent 4 years in Melanesia documenting traditional cultures as he saw them. Fiji was his entrée into the Southern Pacific, and here he developed his own anthropological investigative method. As his arrival in Fiji was relatively late regarding the possibility of making a valuable specimen collection, he spent his time with camera and notebook, documenting what he could of the quickly disappearing traditional ways of life. After leaving Fiji and stopping in Sydney for a brief time, he went to the seat of the then German New Guinea, Hebertshöhe in New Britain. From here, with the aid of Governor Hahl, he made his research along the north coast of New Guinea from Madang up to Aitape and the Humboldt Bay. In December of 1909, Lewis embarked upon a five month exploration of West New Britain and the Huon Gulf, and then until September worked along the Sepik Coastal area before finally going up the Sepik River on the German ship Siar. Throughout his time in New Guinea, Lewis focused on all aspects of the indigenous cultures he encountered, acquiring not only visually impressive carvings and fibre objects, but building collections of more mundane and utilitarian artifacts such as baskets, bowls and utensils. Ever mindful of the requirements of the museum to obtain the most comprehensive group possible, Lewis would in addition to his own field collecting acquire artifacts singly or in bulk from traders such as Isokichi Komine in the Admiralty Islands, and Wilhelm Gramms on New Guinea’s north coast. After leaving New Guinea, he spent the next few years making similar detailed researches and collections in the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and New Caledonia, before returning to New Guinea to complete his fieldwork in the Papuan Gulf. Although the scale of Lewis’ entire Melanesian collection is extraordinary, his New Guinea material and field research is unrivalled in its scope and breadth.

Upon his return to Chicago in 1913, Lewis spent the next several years cataloging his and his predecessor’s collections and in 1921 installed them in 50 rooms in the new Joseph S. Field Hall of Melanesian Anthropology. These exhibits remained virtually unchanged until the mid 1980’s when the direction of the institution changed, and the objects placed into store. The displays were of a time and place, and as the science of anthropology evolved, so did the didactic visual requirements required to illustrate the subject.

With the 1958 acquisition of Captain A.W.F Fuller’s Pacific Island material, a collection that included a number of important Polynesian pieces, The Field Museum became one of the world’s great centers for Oceanic Art.

Kevin Conru