The World Cultures collection is comprised of over 22,000 ethnographic items from diverse human cultures. The museum holds a significant collection of Pacific material (~17,000 items), Asian (~1650 items), African (~1850 items) and Native American material (~350 items).There is also Foreign Archaeology that includes the Ancient Egyptian collection (670 items), and other cultures.
The earliest collection items came from the Pacific. In 1860, William Owen, MP donated his Fiji collection to the Museum. This included tapa cloth, weapons, household utensils and tools, body ornaments, musical instruments, and model houses and canoes. New Caledonian and New Guinea material was quickly added, followed by African weapons, utensils and body ornamentation. After the conclusion of the Queen Victoria Jubilee Exhibition in Adelaide of 1887, the Sultan of Johore collection was donated to the museum and the Theodore Bevan collection from the Papuan Gulf was purchased. Rev. William Roby Fletcher, who was Honorary Curator of Archaeology in 1893, spent some time in Egypt and acquired a considerable number of archaeological objects which form the core of the museum's ancient Egypt collection. By the late 19th century the Museum had assembled significant collections from the Pacific, SE Asia, and Africa.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Museum was assisted by a number of benefactors. For example, J Angas Johnson purchased a Fijian collection in 1900 from D. Garner Jones and presented it to the Museum. Also, the brother-in-law of Edward Stirling (then Director of the Museum), Sir William Ingram, acted as an agent in England and it was through him that the Museum obtained a variety of material from Webster, a dealer in England.
The Museum's small Benin collection (three bronzes and a carved tusk) was obtained by Ingram and David Murray. The Museum does not have a large Polynesia collection but the most prized item is A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook…, compiled by Alexander Shaw, London, 1787. This was purchased from Justice C.E. Herbert in 1909. There are 66 known copies of Shaw's compilation of Polynesian tapa cloth identified so far, each one a little different.
The first of the Native American material — hunting and fishing equipment from J Moorhouse — came in to the Museum in 1911. This was when formal registration of the anthropology collections began. In the meantime, many objects had lost whatever information had come with them and were registered as ‘Old Collection’. It has been the task of curators since then to discover more information for these objects.
Directors Edward Stirling and Edgar Waite both showed great interest in the World Cultures collections, particularly the Pacific material, although both were biologists. They sought to expand the representativeness of the collections through a network of missionaries and government officers working overseas. Exceptionally significant material was obtained this way from Rev. Arthur Chignell of the Anglican Church at Collingwood Bay in Papua; from AC English, an officer of the Papuan administration; from Bishop Cecil Wilson of the Melanesian Mission; and from Rev. William Gray of Tanna in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).
Throughout the 20th century, the Pacific, African, Asian and American collections were built up through donation and purchase. Edgar Waite contributed over a thousand items to the World Cultures collections in 1918 when he travelled to New Guinea on the Museum's first Pacific expedition and collected natural history and ethnographic specimens totalling six shipping tonnes, mostly from New Ireland. Almost half the ethnographic material was bought from other collectors in New Guinea, thus achieving representation from a much wider geographical area than he himself visited.
Most of the early Pacific collections are from the Melanesian islands and coastal New Guinea; it wasn't until after the 1940s that collections from highlands New Guinea were obtained. The exhibition of Pacific collections reached a peak of 4500 objects in 1950 but are now around 3000. This is still the largest display of Pacific material culture in Australia.