Fieldwork in the Collection

By Hanine Miriam Habig • MA Material and Visual Culture

Like several other students from the Anthropology Department, I have been volunteering at the UCL Ethnographic Collection to practice object-based research. Most  of my work became focused on a particular case; the Rawlings Collection. This collection comprises of 18 objects, most of them originating from New Guinea. Ritual stones, nets, arrows, penis sheaths, a belt — all with little information attached to them except the place of origin and the name of their collector, for example ‘G. S. Rawlings, UN Temporary Executives Authority, 1962, New Guinea’1.


But at least there was a name and a place! Finding out more about the collector meant learning about the objects, so I started to invest more and more time into that clue instead of just researching about the type of objects I was presented with. The goal was to verify the given place of origin, learn under which circumstances the objects were collected and, finally, how they made their way into the collection. Given that more than 50 years had passed since the objects were gifted, it was possible that relevant information was lost before the digitalisation of the data. Our initial search yielded little helpful information but, little by little, the collection’s curator and manager, Delphine Mercier, and I were able to reconstruct some major points in George Shirley Rawlings life, which proved to be quite unusual.Picture3

(Above) Belt; (Right) Carrying nets, penis sheaths, purse

He was born 1903, into a missionary family, and stationed in Japan, where he also spent his childhood. He studied there and in South China and in Taiwan, which was then Formosa. In 1932, he was appointed to civil service in the Malaysian state Malacca, which was under British rule at that time. There, he observed how the Japanese invaded Kota Bharu, one day after their attack on Pearl Harbour. After that he worked as a regional advisor in the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information in New Delhi, and he wrote ‘Malaya´, a pamphlet on Indian Affairs, which was published in 1945 (Rawlings 1945; Rawlings, W.: during visit 2017). For a short time in the beginning of the 1960s, he was a Divisional Commissioner for the UN on the Island of Biak, north of New Guinea (Saltford 2000). In 1963, the year he was said to be retired, he died tragically with one of his sons in a car accident in Kabul, Afghanistan (Burke’s Peerage Website).

Arrow details

Would it be possible to contact one of his descendants?

If there hadn’t been all these amazing results to our ‘detective-work’, I would have not believed it to be possible. We had gotten quite far, so now it took several attempts at contacting various people, institutions and… patience. A few times we saw ourselves being quite close. Through peerage specialist Darry Lundy,2located in New Zealand, we got into contact with Paul Whyte3, an old family friend of the Rawlings, only to find he had lost contact. Or, we obtained the address of one of G. S. Rawlings’ sons, but the letter came back.

Eventually, after further reconstructing of the Rawlings’ family tree, we found that George Shirley’s sister was the British actress Margaret Rawlings. She’d been active on stage and in films since the 1930’s onwards, and even starred in ‘Roman Holiday’ Picture4alongside Audrey Hepburn. We got into contact with Margaret’s daughter, Jane Sacchi, who passed on our inquiry to George Shirley’s first-born son, who had immigrated to Canada. She also kindly gave us the correct address of Guy Rawlings, who we had tried to send mail to before. He in turn connected us to his brother Walter, and Walter was willing to visit us.

(Left) Discussing an object with Walter Rawlings

So, in May 2017, six months after starting the research, Delphine and I both felt like we were receiving a state visit when we welcomed Walter Rawlings to the Collection. It turned out that it was Walter who had donated the objects 50 years ago. Back then, he had passed the Department of Anthropology many times on his bike and realised it might be a place where people would find his father’s objects interesting and valuable. He showed them to Dr. Phyllis Kaberry, head of the department back then, who had been doing research on New Guinea herself and was excited to see them.

Audio Snippet 1: Walter Rawlings on how Dr. Kaberry received the objects

Meeting Walter and showing him these objects again after such a long time was an emotional and special event, and an amazing history lesson. It justified all the dead ends of the research and provided us with a rich picture of his father, George Shirley. As a humanitarian, he was always very much in touch with the local people in the places he stayed. Besides English, he spoke Japanese, Cantonese, Hokkien and Malay. He was protective of local Dani tribes during his time as a Divisional Commissioner while the UN had temporary authority in the region.

Audio Snippet 2: Walter Rawlings on his father’s concern for people and the UN

The Papuan objects were given to him directly from a Dani chief, who he had befriended whilst stationed in the Central highlands. Rawlings did not speak Dani, and at this time, around 1962, there were no air fields or roads leading into this region, so transport was by helicopter. We can only speculate about his relationship with the chief, but it seems quite meaningful since he was gifted ritual stones.

Audio Snippet 3: Walter Rawlings on his father’s special relationship with the Dani chief and a cannibal joke

It does indeed feel reassuring to know that within the late colonial system there was people like G. S. Rawlings who, although not an anthropologist, had a similar mind-set and a cultural relativist, respectful attitude towards foreign cultures.


(Right) Bow and bowstring, arrows, ritual stones and adze heads

Upon seeing the objects, Walter Rawlings remembered many of them, but not all. It also seemed that maybe a few were missing. This points to how far the Ethnographic collection has come today. It started back at the end of the 1940’s as a somewhat disordered assemblage made up from objects given by various institutions and from objects that anthropologist brought back from field trips. The objects were not meant to be studied but instead speak for themselves. During a move, some of the existing data on them was lost. Now the collection is being digitalised and professionals and students are taking care of it. Missing clues and data points are steadily being filled in, but some objects might never be fully understood with their story being lost in time, unrevealed and too few connecting points.

One such object is a bird’s nest from the Rawlings Collection, which triggered the initial research. It illustrates two fascinating aspects of object research; how unsatisfying it can feel to not be able to answer all questions, and how at the same time this mystery is beautifully enthralling, beckoning you to dig deeper anyway.

1Information from UCL Ethnography Collection; email exchange started 02.02.2017

3Email exchange started 04.02.2017

*I want to thank everybody who was involved with and supported this research. I am particularly grateful to all the members of the extended Rawlings family, that made it possible for me to learn about George Shirley Rawlings’ extraordinary life. That is: Walter Rawlings, Graem Castell, Guy Rawlings and Jane Sacchi. A big thanks to Delphine Mercier for providing the ground, inspiration and support to ‘dig deep’. Thank you to Mr. Douglas Russell (Natural History Museum, Senior Curator Birds) and Jane Pettitt (Graduate BSc Anthropology, Volunteer in charge of the basketry project at UCL Ethnographic Collection). And thank you as well to Darryl Lundy and Paul Whyte for their support of this research.


Burke’s Peerage. Website. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

Lundy, Darryl (The Peerage) Website. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

Rawlings, George Shirley (1945) Malaya. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saltford, John Francis (2000) UNTEA and UNRWI: United Nations Involvement in West New Guinea During the 1960’s (Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull). Electronic document. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

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