Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Archey, Gilbert Edward

Page 1: Biography

Archey, Gilbert Edward


Zoologist, museum director, ethnologist

This biography, written by John Morton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Gilbert Edward Archey was born in Marygate, York, England, on 4 August 1890, the son of Thomas Archey, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Sarah Triffitt. In 1892 the family emigrated to New Zealand, where Thomas held several teaching positions in the North Island before becoming manager of Burnham Industrial School.

Gilbert was educated at Christchurch West District High School. He then entered Canterbury College, graduating MA with honours in zoology in 1913. He published his first scientific paper in 1911 while studying under Charles Chilton. Archey represented Canterbury at football in 1913. After teaching at Nelson College, he was appointed assistant curator at Canterbury Museum in 1914. He married Myrtle Florence Gee at Christchurch on 27 January 1915; they were to have three daughters. He had joined the New Zealand Field Artillery in 1912, and served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force from September 1916, becoming divisional education officer in 1918. He was appointed an OBE (military) in 1919.

Archey returned to Canterbury Museum after the war and undertook field work in much of the South Island, the Coromandel Peninsula, the Chatham Islands and the subantarctic islands. Most of his 26 zoological papers were published while he was in Christchurch. These included studies on marine and freshwater crayfish, fish, and an important series on the New Zealand Chilopoda (centipedes), still the major work on the group. A 1922 study on the morphology and life history of the primitive native frog Leiopelma hochstetteri stemmed from extensive field work. A related species is named L. archeyi in his honour.

In 1924 Archey was appointed director of the Auckland Institute and Museum. He was presented with the challenge of moving a museum with an established tradition into a spacious modern building, due to open in 1929. Archey had to make decisions about furnishing the galleries, organising and displaying the collection, and appointing new staff. He accomplished all this superbly. In spite of the incessant activity, no-one doubted that he had everything under control. Archey also developed several new initiatives. He wisely inaugurated a public relations policy and began a service to schools in 1930, a scheme later adopted by all metropolitan museums. When officials of the Carnegie Corporation of New York visited New Zealand in 1935, Archey presented a well-prepared plan that resulted in substantial funding for New Zealand museums. And he still engaged in field work and research, accompanying scientific staff on a far-northern survey in 1932.

At Auckland Archey began the most important of his contributions to New Zealand zoology, a study of moa remains. This involved not only intricate osteological skills, but personal collection of most of the material on arduous expeditions with only a few volunteer helpers. The culminating monograph, The moa: a study of the Dinornithiformes, was published in 1941. Original in approach and clear in presentation, it established a classification that was to stand the critical test of all later studies.

In the 1930s Archey turned to the study of Māori carving and sculpture, a field in which he produced some 30 publications. Accurate in description and with a penetrating analysis, these had both a practical and a theoretical approach. Although he came to ethnography late in life, Archey's work was highly regarded. He wrote popular handbooks such as South Sea folk (1937, 1949) and Sculpture and design: an outline of Māori art (1955, 1960). His final book, Whaowhia: Māori art and its artists (1977), was completed just before his death.

Archey gave distinguished service to the Royal Society of New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Institute). A fellow from 1932, he was its president in 1942–43 and gained its Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1968. Prominent in congresses of the Royal Society, he was, in 1949, secretary general of the seventh Pacific Science Congress at Auckland and Christchurch; it owed much of its success to his driving power and organisational ability. Busy as he was, he found time to keep up with developments in zoology, and delivered addresses and lectures. Some of these were published: 'Ways and means in zoology' (1947), 'The place of science' (1949), 'Zoological research and conservation problems' (1951) and 'Science, the humanities and education' (1952).

Gilbert Archey's many public services included membership of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1941–61). He sat on the executive of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand (1964–68), the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, the Māori Purposes Fund Board and the Waitangi National Trust Board. He was president of the Royal Commonwealth Society (formerly the Royal Empire Society) from 1957 to 1959. In 1945–46, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, he had been attached to the civil affairs section of the South East Asia Command in Malaya as a monuments and fine arts officer. He was awarded an honorary DSc in 1941, appointed a CBE in 1958, and created Knight Bachelor in 1963. He died on 20 October 1974 at Auckland, survived by his wife and daughters.

Strict self-discipline allowed Gilbert Archey to excel in many fields. He was never dictatorial; he conveyed clearly what he wanted, then allowed others full initiative. He combined a statesman's decisiveness with the poise and courtesy of a diplomat. Thoughtful, reserved, often withdrawn from the small talk, he held to a strong religious conviction as a lifelong Anglican. He enjoyed home life with his daughters and his wife, whom he nursed through a long illness. He was the last in a line of museum directors who had been the movers and arbiters of natural science in New Zealand. Spacious in vision, and with rare administrative skills, Archey developed much of the philosophy that came to characterise New Zealand museums.

How to cite this page:

John Morton. 'Archey, Gilbert Edward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4a20/archey-gilbert-edward (accessed 18 April 2024)