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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

What is the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology?

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, or MAA for short, is a museum in Cambridge that tells astonishing stories through local antiquities and artefacts acquired from around the world.


Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Simon Burchell, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


MAA History

The collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology consist of a staggering one million items spanning over two million years of human history. This museum, one of a handful of such institutions affiliated with the university, houses collections of local antiquities and international artefacts.


Its roots lie in the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, a scientific group that had begun to amass a collection of archaeological items in 1839. The society lobbied the university for a permanent home for its collection, and eventually, with the help of Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon and Baron Anatole von Hügel, succeeded in gaining backing for a new museum. A purpose-built location on Downing Street opened in 1913 with von Hügel as curator, featuring exhibits donated by the society, Gordon, and the famed archaeologist Alfred Maudslay. The collection quickly expanded with further acquisitions and deposits from Trinity College, alongside the donations of students and faculty. These include artefacts taken from Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world and inscribed Roman stones from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, among other fascinating items.


Highlights of the museum’s collection span a broad range of historical periods and points of origin, from a totem pole made in the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada to the Trumpington Cross, a brooch from an Anglo-Saxon burial site only a few kilometres from the museum itself. The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is closely integrated with the university and many of its curators are Cambridge academics. It continues to grow its collection while welcoming almost 80,000 visitors each year, and routinely lends items to museums and cultural institutions around the world.


The Museum's Evolution

Founded in 1884 as the university's Museum of General and Local Archaeology, the initial collections were enriched by artefacts from Polynesia donated by Alfred Maudslay and Sir Arthur Gordon. Anatole von Hügel, the museum's first curator, also contributed his collection from the South Pacific. The museum's collection further expanded with material from the 1898 Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait led by Alfred Haddon and W. H. R. Rivers. This expedition and the subsequent contributions by students and faculty played a pivotal role in shaping the museum's rich collection.


The museum's relocation to Downing Street in 1913 marked a significant milestone. The new premises were not only larger but also purpose-built to house the growing collection. Despite the challenges posed by World War I, the museum continued to receive significant donations, including materials from James Cook's expeditions.


In 2013, the MAA underwent a major refurbishment, introducing a redeveloped ground floor, a new temporary exhibition space, and revamped archaeology galleries. This renovation aimed to make the museum more accessible and engaging for its visitors.


Prominent Figures and Contributions

Over the years, the museum has been under the stewardship of several notable curators. After von Hügel, the museum saw the leadership of figures like Louis Colville Gray Clarke, Geoffrey Bushnell, Peter Gathercole, and David Phillipson. The current director, Professor Nicholas Thomas, continues the legacy of expanding and curating the museum's vast collection.


Collaborations and Research

The MAA has always been at the forefront of research and collaboration. Currently, it is part of a joint research project with the British Museum. This project focuses on the use of audio recordings within anthropology and aims to map connections between related collections of objects, photographs, and field notes.


Exhibits and Displays

The museum's displays are spread across three floors. The ground floor houses the Clarke Hall, which focuses on the Archaeology of Cambridge, and the Li Ka Shing Gallery, which hosts temporary exhibitions. The first floor, known as the Maudslay Hall, is dedicated to Anthropology, while the second floor, the Andrews Gallery, showcases World Archaeology. One of the museum's unique features is the incorporation of the central section of Inigo Jones's choir screen from Winchester Cathedral.


Set your own pace and explore the iconic sights with our self-guided audio tours of Cambridge.

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