History of the Ethnography Collections

The UCL Department of Anthropology developed out of the work of Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, head of the UCL Anatomy Department from 1919 to 1937. Elliot Smith advocated the theory of hyper diffusion, believing all modern civilization evolved from Ancient Egypt. His research in this field established UCL as an important institution in the study of physical and cultural anthropology and led to the founding of the Department of Anthropology. This happened in the aftermath of WWII, when a new Chair of Anthropology was established for Daryll Forde. Elliot Smith’s approach was continued at UCL into the latter half of the 20th century by N.A. Barnicot, who eventually became Britain’s first Professor of Physical Anthropology (1960 – 1975), and chairs of the department include Mary Douglas, who was Professor of Social Anthropology from 1970 to 1978, and was one of the most famous and influential anthropologists of the 20th century.

Forde, who held the Chair from 1945 to 1969, began his career as a geographer before moving on to prehistoric archaeology and eventually to social anthropology. He organized the department around his own research interests and in doing so rendered it the only university anthropology department to offer material culture studies alongside physical and social anthropology.

A substantial part of the collection derives from the break-up and disposal of the Henry Wellcome Non-Medical collection. While Wellcome Non-medical objects were sold at auction, it was decided not to ‘waste’ the ethnographic collections on the open market and offer them to other museums instead. This led to the ‘ten distributions’ of ethnographic material from the collection from 1949 to 1960. According to the Wellcome Collections documentation of these disposals, UCL expressed interest and received objects in a series of gifts. This included South and North American objects in 1951, Equatorial African objects in 1952, and ‘Ethnographic weapons’ in 1954. It should be noted that Anthropology only received objects via Gift Deed rather than transfer.

In addition to these substantial donations, the collection was also built up through fieldwork.