Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture 13

Legacy, gifts and desires: Sir William MacGregor’s Personal collection

Torrence, R. & Philp, J.

Published online: 2 April 2024


Torrence, R. & Philp, J.


Torrence, R. & Philp, J. 2022. Legacy, gifts and desires: Sir William MacGregor’s Personal collection. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture 13: 403–442. Brisbane.

Date published

September 2022



William MacGregor, British New Guinea, ethnography, museum collection.


As part of his government responsibilities as Administrator and Lieutenant Governor in British New Guinea (1888–1898), Sir William MacGregor amassed a substantial group of ethnographic objects currently known as the ‘Official’ collection and housed mainly at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery and the Queensland Museum. Alongside this activity, MacGregor also set aside some material for his own private use, referred to here as the ‘Personal’ collection. The majority of the Personal collection was later donated to the University of Aberdeen to encourage fellow Scots to broaden their knowledge of the wider world. A smaller component that had been gifted to friends and colleagues is now housed at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and several other museums. Many of the objects MacGregor reserved for himself probably had special significance as memories of people who became his friends and of occasions when he achieved success in his goal to bring what he considered as ‘civilisation’ to the peoples in the colony. Other highly decorated items that would have been attractive to nineteenth-century collectors were gifted by MacGregor to friends or high-status individuals to cement personal relationships or gain prestige. A comparison of the items reserved for MacGregor’s private use with the British New Guinea Official collection highlights key differences between nineteenth-century ethnographic collections intended as comprehensive ‘scientific’ data versus those, like MacGregor’s Personal collection, whose contents were designed chiefly for the education and enjoyment of its owners.

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