James Ingram McDonald was born on 11 June 1865 at Tokomairiro, Otago, New Zealand, the son of Donald McDonald, a ploughman, and his wife, Margaret Ingram. After primary school James attended Otago Boys' High School between 1884 and 1885. He showed early promise as a painter and as a young man took art classes in Dunedin. His art teachers and colleagues included James Nairn, Nugent Welch and Girolamo Nerli. He continued his art studies in Melbourne where, on 29 April 1891, he married Mary (May) Brabin. They were to have three daughters, Marjorie, Flora and Dorothy, and one son, Donald Douglas. On the marriage certificate James gave his occupation as accountant, which suggests that he had been unable to make a living as an artist.
In 1901 the McDonalds returned to New Zealand where James's photographic ability led to work with the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts in Wellington. In the next three years he toured New Zealand extensively, taking photographs of scenic and cultural interest. These trips were often made in the company of the historian James Cowan, who was writing publicity material for the department. He may have encouraged McDonald's growing fascination with Maori art and culture.
In 1905 McDonald was appointed to the Colonial (later Dominion) Museum as a museum assistant and draughtsman. While there he made the model pa that stayed on display at the museum for much of the next 60 years. In 1906 he was transferred back to the Tourist Department to work on displays for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch. The following year he began making films, officially recording various scenic attractions for the Tourist Department.
In 1912 McDonald returned to the Dominion Museum as photographer and art assistant. Elsdon Best had been appointed ethnologist in 1910 and he and McDonald were to have a long professional association. McDonald was responsible for maintaining the photographic collection and producing paintings, drawings and photographs for the Dominion Museum bulletins, many of which were written by Best.
In 1918 McDonald proposed a museum expedition to the Hui Aroha to be held in Gisborne in May the following year. This week-long gathering was to welcome home the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, to honour those who did not return, and to celebrate peace. Apirana Ngata, member of Parliament for Eastern Maori, who was sponsoring initiatives to preserve Maoritanga, arranged for the native minister's private secretary, Te Raumoa Balneavis, to organise the expedition and establish contacts with local people. The Museum party consisted of McDonald, Best and Johannes C. Andersen, librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library; their aim was to collect information on tribal lore. While the others used traditional methods to gather ethnological data, McDonald filmed various activities at the hui. The surviving footage shows poi dances and string games. It is the earliest known ethnographic film to be made in New Zealand.
In 1920 McDonald, again accompanied by Andersen and Best, recorded the gathering of tribes in Rotorua to greet the prince of Wales. The film shows the welcome to the visiting tribes, the preparations for the hui at the racecourse, and demonstrations by Tuhoe of action songs, hand and string games, fire making and stone drilling. McDonald also filmed other aspects of the royal tour.
In March and April 1921 several weeks were spent by McDonald, Best and Andersen at Koriniti, Hiruharama and Pipiriki in the Whanganui River valley. The Maori enthnologist Peter Buck joined them for a few days at Koriniti. McDonald filmed games such as skipping, and the plaiting and weaving of flax for many purposes. The making and setting of eel-pots are shown in detail, and also included are scenes of divinatory rites. As on all of the expeditions, numerous still photographs were taken, and over 50 cylinder recordings were made of songs and speeches.
Apirana Ngata was keen for the museum group to visit the East Coast to obtain records of his Ngati Porou people. In March 1923 they set out for Ngata's home at Waiomatatini. They were joined by Ngata and Buck and had the active support of many elders in the area. McDonald filmed traditional skills and activities, including the construction of fish-nets and traps, the weaving of kits, the digging and storing of kumara, and the cooking of food in a hangi. It is only since 1986, when the New Zealand Film Archive completed the restoration of the surviving unedited and fragmentary negatives, that these films have been available for viewing.
James McDonald had applied for the position of director at the Dominion Museum but was not appointed. However, after 1914 he was intermittently called on to be acting director because of the bad health of the incumbent, J. A. Thomson. Additional duties included designing the New Zealand coat of arms, for which royal warrant was authorised on 26 April 1911; modelling the decorative patterns for the Native Committee Room in Parliament Buildings; and devising displays for the New Zealand pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. McDonald was also made assistant censor of cinematograph films in August 1918 and held this position for eight years.
In 1926 James McDonald was appointed to the Board of Maori Arts, and in the same year he resigned from the museum. He moved to Tokaanu where he helped found Te Tuwharetoa School of Maori Art and Crafts. Its aims were to revive and nurture traditional arts, which were in danger of being lost, and to encourage Maori of Ngati Tuwharetoa to produce crafts for sale locally and overseas. The school had no government support and McDonald and his family suffered considerable financial hardship for the rest of his life. McDonald shared a mutual trust and deep respect with local Maori. He died in Tokaanu on 13 April 1935 and was buried at Taupo cemetery. He was survived by three of his children and his wife, who died in 1956 at the age of 90.
After his death a tribute appeared in Te Waka Karaitiana, honouring his decision to live and work with the Maori people of Tokaanu, and his desire to continue learning from them was noted with approval. At the time of his death he was still learning to speak Maori, and gathering historical information and whakapapa. The arts and crafts school he founded no longer exists, but numerous examples of McDonald's work have been preserved. Many hundreds of his photographic negatives are held by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, there are prints of his work in the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii, and the four ethnographic films he made are held in the collection of the New Zealand Film Archive Nga Kaitiaki o Nga Taonga Whitiahua.