‘Judicious Collectors’, 1870–1914

  • Paul TurnbullEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Pacific History book series (PASPH)


In this chapter, I explore the motivation and means by which several leading figures in Australian museum and medico-scientific circles of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries built collections of Indigenous skulls and other bodily remains. The chapter first traces the collecting ambitions of Edward Pierson Ramsay (1842–1916) at Sydney’s Australian Museum. In doing so, I draw attention to how Ramsay and other museum curators encouraged commercial collecting and trading of Indigenous bodily remains. The chapter then examines the anthropological interests of Edward Charles Stirling (1848–1919) during his near thirty-year tenure as director of the South Australian Museum between 1884 and 1912. A Cambridge educated surgeon and physiologist, Stirling was intrigued by what he took to be the possible evolutionary significance of the form of the leg bones and crania of Australia’s first peoples. Like other Darwinian scientists of the time, he concluded on the basis of his examination of remains acquired by the museum that Indigenous Australians were one or possibly several closely related racial types which had been trapped by evolutionary stasis to the degree that they were for all intents and purposes identical in terms of biology and psychology to the inhabitants of Europe during the Paleolithic era. The chapter surveys Stirling’s efforts to acquire Australian bodily remains with the ambition of making the South Australian Museum an internationally significant centre for the study of human evolutionary genealogy. Two other influential Australian-based scientists are the focus of the remainder of this chapter: Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) and Richard J. Berry (1867–1962). Spencer’s contributions to the conceptual development of social anthropology have been the subject of much scholarly interest. Here, attention is drawn to his long-standing interest in human evolutionary history and his efforts to acquire Indigenous bones for the museum. The chapter concludes by assessing the collecting and examination of Tasmanian and mainland crania by Richard Berry after his appointment to the chair of anatomy at Melbourne University in 1905. A protégé of William Turner (1832–1916), Berry pursued craniometric investigations, notably of Tasmanian skulls that complemented and refined previous research by Turner on human origins and racial genealogy.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TasmaniaLauncestonAustralia
  2. 2.University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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