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Building a comprehensive database for “The George Brown Collection” of the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku)

Research period: June 2014 – March 2016 / Project for Database Improvement (project period: max. 2 years)

Coordinator HAYASHI Isao


The George Brown Collection (hereafter termed “Collection”) is an assemblage of Pacific Island artifacts. These historically and culturally significant materials were collected over a period of 50 years by the Rev. Dr. George Brown, while he worked as a Christian missionary in the Pacific Region. These materials enable understanding of how missionaries and local residents lived during that period. Further, they are important from ethnographical and natural historical perspectives, because they can provide source communities with insights into the lives of their ancestors.
In collaboration with scholars, museums, and research institutions in the Pacific Islands, Japan, and other countries of the Pacific Region, this project aims to enhance the quality of basic data associated with each collected object and specimen. Another mission of the project is to establish links to other additional materials collected by Brown, and now held by institutions in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. These materials include ethnological objects, photographs, and the personal letters, diaries, and other related items of George Brown. In these ways, a comprehensive database for the Collection can be established.


The George Brown Collection is comprised of some 3,000 ethnographic items. According to the current object descriptions, 1,532 are from Papua New Guinea (287 from the Trobriand Islands and 615 from the Bismarck Archipelago); 652 from the Solomon Islands; 138 from Fiji; and 240 from Samoa. The items from these four countries alone total 2,562. Together with museums in these four countries and museums elsewhere, we will be conducted to enhance the information for each object. Directors and research staff at these museums have been asked to study the Minpaku online English website and database, where details concerning the collection and the collector are provided. These researchers will be invited to Minpaku to study the collection first-hand and to discuss with researchers in Japan possible approaches for future exchange with source communities. The social and historical background of George Brown’s collecting activities and the collection itself will be studied through his writings (books, letters, journals, and other documents), with input from collaborating researchers. Two books and numerous scientific articles authored by Brown (comprising 22 rolls of microfiche) are available in the Minpaku library. Most of his journals and letters are preserved at the Mitchell Library (a specialized historical library within the State Library of New South Wales, Australia) but have been published in a digital format, and these too can be studied at Minpaku. Joint studies will be conducted by experts from Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. The Australian Museum, which houses a large collection of photographs taken by Brown (about 900 plates), will also work with Minpaku to identify those related to the collection at Minpaku. Use of these photographs to enhance the Minpaku website and database will be discussed.
Christian mission activities and the lives of missionaries in the Pacific Islands at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Brown was active in the region, have been described in the works of collaborating researchers, Helen Gardner and Margaret Reeson. Their advice will be sought when reviewing information related to the Collection.
Michael Brown, a direct descendant of George Brown’s brother, lives in Newcastle, UK and is studying Brown’s activities. Michael Brown has visited Minpaku to see the Collection, and has been contacted again by research staff. In FY 2012, Christopher McHugh came to Minpaku as visiting faculty under the International Placement Scheme Program of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, UK, to work on his project, “Recontextualizing the George Brown Collection through Creative Ceramic Practice.” Since returning to the UK, he has continued his studies on Brown and the Collection, including research on the Brown family, as well as related materials which were not included in the original collection when Minpaku purchased it. We will continue to collaborate with Christopher McHugh, and the findings will be shared through the website and database.
The proposed database will allow cross-referencing of the collected data. It will be useful not only for research purposes, but will also serve both people in the regions from which these materials originated, and providers of related information.

Expected results

An English-language database for the Collection has already been made available to the general public. This project will make the basic information for each specimen more accessible, accurate and richer in content. To support further study, we will seek commentaries and data from source communities and the international research community. For this purpose the database also requires a feature to allow browsing of materials related to the collection but managed by other museums. These materials include Brown’s journals and letters, his photographs, and other objects which help understanding or discovery the historical period, the role of his mission work, details of his collecting activities and the details of similar objects held in other collections. It is planned to integrate all of these efforts and information services into a single searchable system.

Outcomes from 2014

1. The state of implementation of this year’s research

In 2014, the first year of this project, we started with a confirmation of the roles in which each of our members in Japan would assume and then hosted a meeting where associate professor Marukawa presented an explanation that helped us all share a common perception of the concepts behind the Info-Forum Museum.
In August, Yugo Tomonaga (cooperating researcher in Japan) met Dr. Helen Gardner (cooperating researcher overseas) in Melbourne, Australia in order to give an outline of the project. From Dr. Gardner, Mr. Tomonaga obtained information on the collection of artifacts for ethnographic museums that was carried out in the South Pacific by George Brown and other missionaries of his time. In addition, he gained information on the management of the materials housed at the Melbourne Museum. At the Australian Museum in Sydney, he met Dr. Robin Torrence, our research partner, and Dr. Jude Philp of the Macleay Museum of the University of Sydney to conduct surveys on the use of the collections housed in these museums.
In November, Hayashi and Matthews went to New Zealand and visited Auckland Museum to meet staff members in charge of outreach programs, Pacific history, digital systems, collection management, and conservation science and then asked for their support in the implementation of our project. At the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, they observed the housed materials, and gained information on data management, and their database sharing with other institutions. They met the collection manager in charge of the Pacific Area and other digital collection experts. They also had a meeting with Mr. Rhys Richards, an ethnological writer who was to be invited to Minpaku.
In addition to Mr. Rhys Richards, an expert for  the Solomon Islands, we have invited Dr. Robin Hyde (professor emeritus of the Australian National University) to Minpaku to survey plant materials used in Melanesia. Dr. Giancarlo Scoditti from Italy was also invited to survey materials related to the Trobriand Islands, but was unfortunately not able to come to Japan.
For our public website, we translated brief explanatory descriptions written in Japanese and English on the George Brown (G.B.) Collection and in the relevant database into Melanesian Pidgin, Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian, and then adjusted the related interfaces so that the descriptions could be read in these languages.
Furthermore, we launched a project to search the diaries and letters of George Brown for  places thay he visited and to learn what he was doing during his travels for the collection of ethnological materials. This project will continue to this year.

2. Overview of the research results

The invitation of Dr. Hyde and Mr. Richards allowed us to further enrich the information available on the individual materials related to the G.B. Collections. We successfully secured a promise of cooperation for the project from the specialized department staff of the above museums in Austria and New Zealand. This makes it possible for us to continue to receive information from these museums in the future and is of great importance for us.

3. Records disclosing the outcomes (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

[1] We chose sample items from among the G.B. Collections and contributed them to the catalog of the Joseph Banks Exhibition held at the Museum in Bunkamura. We also gave an explanation about the collections at a press preview. This contribution will help to make the G.B. Collections widely known in Japan. Ref: Captain Cook’s Voyage and Banks’ Florilegium (the exhibition catalogue)
[2] McHugh, Christopher (overseas research partner) (in Press) Recontextualizing the George Brown Collection through Creative Ceramics, Journal of Museum Ethnography 26.
[3] We introduced the G.B. Collections to the visitors at a gallery talk (Minpaku Weekend Salon) entitled ‘Time Capsule of Papua New Guinea’ held on March 29, 2015.