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Sir Gilbert Archey ( 1890-1974 )

Zoologist and museum director Gilbert Edward Archey played a significant role in the development of both the arts and the sciences in New Zealand. Many of his studies remain unsurpassed today.

Born in York, England, on August 4, 1890, Archey’s family immigrated to New Zealand when he was just two years old. Early in life, he became engrossed in the study of his new homeland’s vast array of animals, insects, and plants. His pioneering studies began at Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he earned a Master of Zoology with honors. In 1914 he was appointed Assistant Curator at Canterbury Museum, where he published in-depth studies of New Zealand centipedes, which remain today as the foremost in their field.

In 1912, Archey joined the New Zealand Field Artillery and served during World War I with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. For his services during the war, he was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1919. At the end of World War I, Archey resumed his work at the Canterbury Museum. He undertook field work across New Zealand and its islands, publishing dozens of zoological papers on his findings. His 1922 study of native frogs led to the rare species L. Archeyi being named in his honor. Today, the species is commonly referred to as “Archey’s frog.”

In 1924, Archey accepted the position of Director at the Auckland Institute and Museum. There, he studied Maori sculptures and carvings and published and earned a Doctor of Science degree for his major work on the moa, a now-extinct bird that once towered over man. During his tenure as Director, he revitalized the museum by moving it to a spacious modern building and developed several new initiatives, including an educational program for local schools. His efforts impressed the Carnegie Corporation of New York who, during a visit to the museum in 1935, provided significant funding to not only the Auckland Institute and Museum but several other New Zealand museums.

During World War II, Archey served in New Zealand as a lieutenant colonel in command of the 4th Battalion- Auckland Regiment from 1940 to 1943. Around this time, the British Museum had begun supplying lists of monuments and sites in need of protection in the Dutch East Indies to the South-East Asia Command (SEAC). At an April 1944 meeting between the SEAC, representatives of the Netherlands Government and Army, and Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Archaeological Advisor to the War Office, it was decided to appoint a British MFAA Officer to oversee the area and liaise with Dutch art experts. After being selected by Woolley for the position, Archey was attached to the British Military Administration and arrived at SEAC headquarters in June 1945. During his time as the only Monuments Officer in the area, Archey worked tirelessly to protect churches, temples, monuments and archives in Sumatra, Malaya, Thailand, Java, and Indo-China.

Archey’s efforts in the field were invaluable to the preservation of art and culture in Southeast Asia. One local art expert wrote a letter to the War Office commending Archey: “I hope that one day it will be realized how much the biological sciences and ethnology in Malaya owe to official forethought and to Colonel Archey’s unselfish energy.”

After returning to New Zealand in 1946, Archey returned to his position as Director of the Auckland Institute and Museum and remained committed to the preservation of Eastern art and culture. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1958 and created Knight Bachelor in 1962. He was on the executive board of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand, the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, elected President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and named Director Emeritus of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Sir Gilbert E. Archey died in Auckland, New Zealand on October 20, 1974.