The Australian Museum lost nearly its entire anthropology collections in the 1882 fire of the Garden Palace. In the same year it acquired 60 ancient Egyptian preserved human heads and other body parts. These remains were recovered from the cave burials near Thebes by entrepreneurial Dr Schmidt and his colleague Dr Friedrich Mook. This collection was destined to grow into one of the most significant assemblage of the Egyptian antiquities in Australia.

Two years later, in 1884, the Museum acquired nearly 100 artefacts of the Zulu people - the largest ethnic group in recent South Africa. These artefacts were collected during the legendary war in which the Zulu bravely defended their independence against British colonial forces. In the late 1870 the Zulus assembled one of the best organised and disciplined indigenous armies in Africa. Numbering over 40,000 warriors, they engaged in famously bloody and brutal battles. The war ended the autonomy of the Zulu Nation. The collection was made by Sir Edward Strickland, who was serving in the British army during the Zulu War.

More South African objects were obtained via the Pietermaritzburg Museum in Natal in 1896. Sizeable collections from Somalia and Egypt were acquired from H. W. Seton-Karr at the end of the 19th century. By 1900 the African collection numbered over 500 artefacts. By the middle of the 20th century, the Collection has expanded to over 2000 artefacts and currently it numbers over 3000 objects.

One of the less conventional forms of acquisition was the Australian Museum subscription to the Egypt Exploration Fund. For the regular subscription between 1898 and 1914 we have received over 300 artefacts from the ancient Egyptian civilisation. This important collection was further expanded by exchanges with Professor John Garstang in 1904-05; the 1943 donation of the George Henry Abbott Collection, and the large donation of over 400 artefacts by Alfred and Ernest Wunderlich in the first decades of the 20th century.

In 1979 William Bowmore, a businessman and philanthropist from Newcastle (north of Sydney), made an important donation of over 150 African masks, carvings and sculptures representing examples of traditional art from about 30 different cultural groups of sub-Saharan Africa.

Collection highlights

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