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The Archbold Expeditions to New Guinea

A preliminary survey of archival materials held at the American Museum of Natural History.
by Michael Cookson.

(Last modified: 24 Feb 2005)
This is a review of archival materials resulting from seven expeditions in New Guinea conducted between 1933 and 1964 on behalf of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York City. These expeditions were principally funded by the American philanthopist (and mammalogist) Richard Archbold through a not-for-profit corporation which became known as Archbold Expeditions Incorporated. The overall aim of these expeditions was:
 “… to study the geographical and ecological relationships of the animal and plant life of New Guinea, Malaysia as a whole, and Australia, and to shed further light on the question of previous land connections between these now insular areas” (AMNH 1956, pg.1).

Archbold Expeditions to New Guinea, 1933-1964 (after Brass and Hoogland:1972,26)

Born in 1907, Richard Archbold personally lead three major expeditions to the island of New Guinea, two in Papua (1933/34 and 1936/37) and the third in Netherlands New Guinea (1938-39). Archbold’s grand vision and considerable financial resources expanded the role that Frank Hurley (1922), the Smithsonian Institute’s Stirling Expedition (1926), W.D. Brandes (1928) and others had imagined for aircraft in the scientific exploration of New Guinea (see Sinclair 1978). The loss of Archbold’s first flying boat in a sudden storm in Port Moresby’s harbour in 1936 did not weaken his resolve to use aircraft for logistical support and specimen collection. The 1938/39 Expedition, with its reliance on Archbold’s specially modified Consolidated PBY-2 flying boat, was one of the largest, most technically ambitious expeditions ever attempted on the island of New Guinea. It resulted in massive specimen collections and the discovery of the Baliem Valley in June 1938, but the Second World War severely disrupted Archbold’s plans for further research work in New Guinea. Archbold founded a Biological Research Station at Lake Placid, Florida in 1941, and within a few years he had established his home at what became the Archbold Biological Station (ABS). Although Archbold remained the major sponsor of more modest AMNH research expeditions to the Territories of Papua (1953, 1956) and New Guinea (1959, 1964), one to Cape York (1948) and a research program in Sulawesi (1973-1976), he did not accompany any of these later expeditions. Richard Archbold never married and continued to live at the ABS in Florida until his death in August, 1976 (see Morse 2000).

While detailed expedition reports appeared in the AMNH’s Bulletin series and dozens of scientific papers have been written about specimens collected during these expeditions, no comprehensive attempt has been made to evaluate the Archbold Expeditions research program in New Guinea. A succinct review of the expeditions was written by Leonard Brass and R. D. Hoogland in 1972 (Brass and Hoogland 1972) although this text strongly reflects Brass’s role as botanist for the first six expeditions. The only other summary of these expeditions appears in the AMNH publication, “The American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Exploration and Discovery”, written for a popular audience in 1995 (Rexer and Klein 1995).

Archbold Expeditions made significant gifts to the AMNH: funding expeditions which returned large numbers of specimens from Australasia, purchasing many additional specimens from other institutions for the Mammalogy Department and building a valuable reference library on New Guinea. Much of this sustained research effort is preserved in the specimen collections of the AMNH Departments of Anthropology, Entomology, Herpetology, Icthyology, Ornithology and Mammalogy and almost all of the associated documentation is held in the Mammalogy Departmental Library and Archives (DLA). While duplicates of some specimen sets were given to institutions such as the British Museum of Natural History, plant specimens resulting from these expeditions were widely dispersed because the AMNH does no botanical research. Large plant collections are held at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston (now part of the Harvard University Herbarium) and the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane (this was Leonard Brass’s home institution and retains some duplicate archival records from these expeditions). Collections from the 1938/39 Indisch-Amerikaansche Expeditie were also received by the Lands Plantentuin at Buitenzorg (now the Indonesian Botanical and Zoological Gardens at Bogor) and the Dutch Rijksmusuem van Natuurlijke Historie and Rijksherbarium, both in Leiden.

Built in 1891, the DLA retains its original Victorian interior, with cast iron bookshelves supporting a glass tiled mezzanine floor. It is located on the fifth floor of the historic 1888 Building (south wing) of the AMNH, on 77th Street West, Manhattan. This non-lending library is in a restricted area of the Museum and visitors require prior permission in writing from the Chair of Mammalogy to access the collection. The small, well lit library has desks available for several researchers and is open during AMNH office hours, Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 5:00pm and closed on public holidays. The DLA has no permanent librarian, but Mammalogy Department staff will assist with brief e-mail, mail and telephone inquiries about the collection. Extensive research inquiries (in excess of one hour) are charged at US$25 per hour.

A visit to the DLA may be impractical for many researchers interested in, or resident in, the New Guinea region. While no catalogue of the DLA holdings is available over the internet, there are several key guides to the Archbold Expeditions archive worth mentioning. The most important resource is the thirty-eight page “Archbold Archival Index,” written by Bill Glover and museum volunteers in 1988. This Index and the work that it represents, is the first complete effort to archive all of the written documentation generated by the Archbold Expeditions. The Index is in three sections which deal with: general correspondence of extended duration (alphabetical); specific expeditions correspondence (chronological); and accounting or statistical records (alphabetical). When combined with the Department of Mammalogy’s “Correspondence Archives Index”, this provides a comprehensive reference to all documents held in the DLA pertaining to Archbold Expeditions.

The Archbold Expeditions archive holds a wealth of historical information unrelated to mammal or other specimens collected during the New Guinea expeditions. From his earlier photographic work in Madagascar, the archive documents Richard Archbold’s development as adventurer, scientist and philanthropist. Sustained correspondence (Section 1) with the AMNH, other research institutions, businesses and individuals demonstrates the significant scientific and administrative effort required for Archbold Expeditions Inc. to manage these expeditions. This correspondence is supported by comprehensive accounts ledgers, invoices, requisitions, shipping orders and other miscellaneous administrative papers contained in Section 3 of the Archbold Archive Index. Expeditions folders (Section 2) contain proposal documents, government negotiations and permits, detailed financial and expeditionary equipment arrangements, native service contracts, publicity and media files, various original field journals, radio and aircraft logs, specimen inventories and expedition reports. The following extract, from a letter Archbold typed in Hollandia during his Third Expedition (Folder XI-c), challenges naïve assumptions about Archbold’s wealth and patronage while demonstrating his concern for public approval and his ambitious plans for future work in New Guinea. We can assume the letter was written for Richard’s brother Adrian, who together with Archbold’s personal secretary Frank Rinald, handled financial affairs for Archbold Expeditions:

Dear Archie   Jan. 9 1939
       Thanks for your letter even if it was a bit disturbing, though the figure of [US$] 325,000 is about what I figured...
       I have in mind another expedition and have worked out preliminary plans, though I have been fully aware that I can not do it, and your letter further emphasizes the fact, without raising all the money necessary to run it outside of my family.
       The trip that I have in mind will take about two years to accomplish though the length of time is quite flexible and takes in the whole of the Island of New Guinea..
       This trip has been so far extraordinarily successful and I hope it will continue though we lost two dyaks [sic] when they first arrived, though they were sick when they arrived so I think we can say that we have had no sickness to mention. Please say nothing about the two boys...

Complimenting the documents in its collection, the DLA retains a large number of photographic images taken during various Archbold Expeditions to New Guinea. Archbold and other members utilised conventional and large format cameras on their expeditions, but regrettably most of the resulting prints and negatives – including many unstable silver nitrate negatives - have yet to be properly stored, conserved and catalogued. At present, the only guides to this collection are confusing. Photo Indexes were produced after all Archbold Expeditions and list negatives by roll, with detailed categories and captions for each frame. For the early New Guinea expeditions however, these lists rarely concord with an assessment of the physical condition of these negatives conducted in 1992 (see Goldberg 1993). These expedition images remain the most intriguing and inaccessible materials in the Archbold collection. The following estimates of prints for the 1933/34, 1936/37 and 1938/39 expeditions is indicative of the breadth of images taken during these expeditions, and represents a portion of the photographic material for these expeditions.

Classification of print*
















Expeditionary (base camps, personnel, aviation, etc)




Landscapes (habitats, localities, panoramas, etc)












Totals (approx.)




(* These 5x7” prints from 35mm nitrate negatives are stored in trolley cabinets in the DLA.)

Until the visual documentation in the DLA has been conserved, catalogued and archived this material remains difficult to access and will not endure. For example, an examination of the 11 volumes of bound newsclippings kept by Archbold Expeditions staff from 1934-1953 revealed that motion picture footage of birds of paradise was shot during the 1938/39 Expedition (Philadelphia Inquirer 1940). Unfortunately, attempts to locate this motion picture footage proved futile, although the search did uncover two reels of movie film from the 1964 Expedition held in the main library. Anecdotal reports suggest some nitrate-based films and negatives held in the main library at the AMNH were removed and destroyed in the 1960s to reduce possible fire risk (to comply with a City of New York Fire Ordinance). It does appear, however, that a duplicate copy of the 1938/39 film was deposited in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. (view record). This demonstrates the value of redundancy in (archival) collections.

The following overview of fieldwork and locales is followed by a preliminary list of extraordinary or uncatalogued archival material held in the collection.

1933/34 - Territory of Papua

Based in Port Moresby, this expedition collected specimens along a traverse from Yule Island to Mt Albert Edward and in the Oriomo River region near Daru Island.

Photographic notes:
  • 5x7” B&W lantern slides taken by L. Brass (59 plates).
  • Richard Archbold: (original, handwritten) - Jan 12 1933- May 8, 1934. This beautiful journal reflects Archbold’s enthusiasm as exhibition leader and his fascination with the New Guinea environment. It contains sketch maps and illustrations, bird feathers and dry-pressed flowers, a weather log, photographic index, field techniques, practices for trapping and shooting mammals and other descriptive notes.
  • Leonard Brass: (original, typed) This journal, by the expedition botanist, contains extensive general notes and detailed botanical descriptions (appox. 130 pages).

1936/37 - Territory of Papua

Based in Port Moresby and Daru Island, this expedition used boats and an amphibious aeroplane to collect specimens along the Fly and Wassi Kussa Rivers including Lake Daviumbu and as far upstream as the junction of the Fly and Palmer Rivers.

Photographic notes:
  • 8x10” B&W large format nitrate negatives (150 images).
  • (According to Sinclair (1978, 282) aerial photographs were taken using a Fairchild k-3B aerial mapping camera mounted inside the Fairchild Amphibian aircraft.).
  • Richard Archbold (original, handwritten and typed) 23 Jan, 1936 - 26 June, 1936. The expedition leader includes general expeditionary notes, a few illustrations and partial weather log in this journal.
  • Radio Log (original, handwritten) details the progress of the expedition, interactions with local authorities and local peoples, logistical arrangements, problems, etc (two volumes, fragmented but with some excellent material).
  • George H.H. Tate (original, handwritten) Feb 1936-Jan 1937. The expedition mammalogist produced an astonishingly thorough and interesting journal with various sketch maps, illustrations, and a partial log of the mammals collected (two volumes, 300+ pages).

1938/39 - Netherlands New Guinea

Based in Hollandia (now Jayapura), this expedition used a large flying boat to establish collecting camps near the Idenburg River and Lake Habbema from which they explored the Baliem Valley, Mt Wilhelmina (now Mt Trikora) and surrounding areas.

Pesawat 'Guba' di Danau Habbema, 1938
  (The 'Guba' aircraft, 1938)
The Archbold Expedition Team (1938-1939) on top of the flying-boat "Guba" at Lake Habbema, 1938  © AMNH
("Guba" a PBY-2 Catalina flying-boat built by Consolidated Aircraft Corp., San Diego - see www.pby.com)
Photographic notes:
  • 35mm colour glass slides (including aircraft, ethnology, camps, habitat = 100 slides).
  • 7x7” B&W large format nitrate negatives used in aerial reconnaissance (431 prints).
  • 8x10” B&W aerial photographs (Australian Airforce 1943 – 60 prints).
  • 8x10” B&W large format nitrate negatives (160 images).
  • Radio log books for Hollandia and Lake Habbema bases (original, handwritten) Comprehensive radio logs (frequency, signal strength, etc) with a wealth of material regarding progress of expedition, logistical arrangements, problems, etc.
  • Leonard Brass (original, typed) March 23, 1938 - June 9, 1939. As expedition botanist, Brass wrote two volumes of detailed notes on the expedition, the arrangements and environments of the camps (approx. 200 pages).
  • A.L. Rand (original, typed) July 6, 1938- May 5, 1939. This expedition's deputy and ornithologist describes the various members of the expedition, their local assistants and general ornithological notes in his journal (approx. 100 pages).
  • W.B. Richardson (original, handwritten) April 23, 1938 - May 22, 1939. Detailed notes on logistics, local people, conditions, habitats and mammals by the expedition mammalogist (approx 200 pages).
  • L.J. Toxopeus (original, typed) the leader of the Netherlands scienfitic party sent this journal as series of reports back to the Director of Economic Affairs, Batavia (Netherlands New Guinea administration)... each of the four sections are accompanied by English translations.

1953 - Territory of Papua

This expedition used local boats and carriers to collect specimens along a traverse from Collingwood Bay on the Cape Vogel Peninsula to Mt Dayman and around Goodenough Island.

Photographic notes:
  • 35mm kodachrome slides (approx. 650 images).
  • Leonard Brass (copy, typed) - March 2cd, 1953- November 16, 1953. As leader and botanist for this expedition, Brass wrote thorough expedition notes as well as including his usual keen scientific descriptions of local habitat and flora (approx. 150 pages).
  • Hobart Van Deusen (original, handwritten) - January 23, 1953 – Nov 18th, 1953. This journal focuses on Van Deusen’s mammalogy research and general expedition logistics.

1956 - Territory of Papua

Extending the 1953 work, this expedition relied on local ships and carriers to collect specimens among the eastern islands of Normanby, Fergusson, Misima, Sudest (Tagula), Rossel, Woodlark, the Trobriands and in the Milne Bay and Modewa Bay areas.

Photographic notes:
  • 35mm kodachrome slides (approx. 1200 images).
  • Leonard Brass (handwritten original March 4th, 1956 - Feb 1, 1957) comprehensive notes by the leader and botanist of this expedition, including his characteristic scientific descriptions of local habitat and botany (152 pages).

1959 - Territory of New Guinea

Based in Lae, this expedition utilised local aircraft and roads to collect specimens in the eastern highlands around Mt Wilhelm, Mt Otto, Mt Michael, Mt Elandora and Mt Kaindi as well as around Lae-Edie Creek and the upper Markham Valley.

Photographic notes:
  • 35mm kodachrome slides (approx. 500 images).
  • 35mm kodak stereographic negatives (from stereographic camera - approx 1800 images including an undertermined number from the 1964 Expedition).
  • Leonard Brass (original, typed) March 14th, 1959 - January 24, 1960. Comprehensive and very orderly notes by Brass as leader and botanist on his final expedition (182 pages), including his characteristic scientific descriptions of local habitat and botany.

1964 - Territory of New Guinea

Based in the Huon Peninsula and with the use of aircraft, small boats and native carriers, this expedition collecting specimens around Pindiu, the Rawlinson Ranges and Cromwell Mountains, the Saruwaged plateau and in the lowland areas around Finschhafen.

Photographic notes:
  • 35mm kodachrome slides (approx. 1700 images).
  • 16mm motion picture film (2 reels).
Journals: no significant journals or field notes are available for this expedition.

The Archbold archive is an integral part of the overall AMNH collection. While the Mammalogy Department currently allows free photocopying for visitors who require limited copies for private research, a variety of restrictions apply to the use of the DLA material for other purposes. The Department of Mammalogy can arrange for prints from DLA holdings for between US$10-20 (contact prints – 11x14” enlargements), but this does not include reproduction or copyright payments. Again, permission for access and use of material must be given in writing (for more information visit http://research.amnh.org/mammalogy/visits.php). A full list of DLA and AMNH policies regarding use and publication of museum materials is available on request from the Secretary of Mammalogy with general information available through the AMNH research website (http://research.amnh.org).

  • AMNH (1956) Archbold Expedition leaves for remote area of New Guinea, AMNH press release March 3, 1956, New York, NY: AMNH.
  • Goldberg, Peter (1993) Preliminary Survey of the Photographic Archives, Department of Mammalogy, AMNH, DLA, AMNH (Unpublished).
  • Morse, Roger A. 2000 Richard Archbold and the Archbold Biological Station, Gainsville: University Press of Florida.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer (1940) “Rare Birds Rhumba for Science”, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15.
  • Rexer, Lyle and Rachel Klein (1995) American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Expedition and Discovery, New York, NY: AMNH and Harry N. Abrams.
  • Brass, Leonard J. and R.D. Hoogland (1972) “Archbold Expeditions” in Peter Ryan (ed) Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, Volume 1, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press in association with the University of Papua and New Guinea, pp. 25-28.
  • Sinclair, James (1978) Wings of Gold: How the aeroplane developed New Guinea, Sydney: Pacific Publications.
With thanks to: Clare Flemming, Pat Brunauer, Barbara Mathe, Dr Guy Musser, Dr Syd Anderson, Dr Nancy Simmons, Dr Ross MacPhee, Dr Larry Lake, Dr Jim Layne and Fred Lohrer.

This text is a draft version of: Cookson, Michael 2000 The Archbold Expeditions to New Guinea: A preliminary survey of archival materials held at the American Museum of Natural History, Journal of Pacific History, 35(3), pp.313-318.

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