Henry Devenish Skinner (known as Harry or HD) was born at New Plymouth on 18 December 1886, the youngest of three children of Margaret Bracken Devenish and her husband, William Henry Skinner. His father, a surveyor for the Crown Lands Department, had a keen interest in Maori curios. He was a founder member of the Polynesian Society and wrote extensively on Maori ethnology and colonial history. As a boy Harry joined his father in combing the Taranaki beaches for artefacts. To this early interest was added an enthusiasm for the military. The wars of the 1860s were still fresh in the family memory – his mother's homestead had been razed in one skirmish – and the South African War made a strong impression. Harry enrolled in the cadet corps, New Plymouth Central School, at the age of 11, and again at Nelson College, where he was sent as a boarder in 1902.
In Nelson he tramped and sailed with his friend James Richmond. Searching for artefacts was a common activity on these expeditions and Skinner's horizons were further broadened in 1906 when he visited Dunedin and began fossicking at Pipikaretu and Purakanui, under the guidance of Jack Simcox, later well known for his collecting in Hawke's Bay.
This interest was largely set aside from 1906 to 1909 when Skinner studied law at Victoria College, but he had no lasting interest in the profession. He had made the acquaintance of Eva Louisa Gibbs, and when her family moved to Dunedin, Skinner decided to enrol, in 1911, for a BA at the University of Otago. His interest had turned firmly to antiquity through reading works by William Dawkins, Jens Worsaae and Charles Lyell. But as anthropology was not offered, his favourite subject became zoology, in which he took the Parker Memorial Prize. Skinner spent much of 1912–13 as acting curator of the Otago University Museum, and on graduating sought a museum position, without success, before joining the staff of Palmerston North High School in 1914. At the end of the year he volunteered for military service.
As a private in the 14th Company of Otago Battalion, Skinner sailed for Egypt in April 1915 with the Fourth Reinforcements. They were ordered on to Gallipoli, where Skinner was involved in heavy action, much of it hand-to-hand fighting during August 1915 at Chunuk Bair. On the morning of 9 August Skinner, already gashed in the leg, was wounded in the head by a sniper. In the afternoon, as the situation of the Otago Battalion deteriorated, he volunteered to carry a message to headquarters, a long and hazardous journey across ground swept by machine-gun fire. Mentioned in dispatches, Skinner was evacuated on 10 August to Malta and then to Britain. Upon recovery he was drafted into base camp duties and promoted to lance corporal. On 8 October 1915 he was awarded the DCM and later that year discharged as unfit for further active service. (During the Second World War he served as an intelligence officer with the New Zealand Home Guard).
In December 1916 Eva Gibbs arrived from New Zealand and she and Skinner were married on 4 December in the Southampton Register Office; they were to have two sons, the first being stillborn. Eva had accompanied Skinner in fossicking expeditions before the war and she remained an active participant in his research. She drew most of the figures for his only monograph.
In 1917 Skinner enrolled as a postgraduate student at Christ's College, Cambridge, attracted there by A. C. Haddon, the senior oceanic ethnologist of his day. With the assistance of Haddon and Baron Friedrich von Hügel, his director of studies, Skinner met many senior anthropological figures and museum workers. His project involved the study of Maori and especially Moriori material culture in British museums, and resulted in seminal papers on the evolution of Maori art and the award of a diploma of anthropology in 1917. He was elected to the council of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1918.
After returning to New Zealand that year, Skinner took up a position in the Otago University Museum as assistant curator (ethnologist). He was also appointed lecturer in anthropology, the first in Australasia – an innovation he had advocated with the support of prominent British anthropologists. Working conditions were primitive, and Skinner resorted to obtaining the additional position of librarian at the Hocken Library (1919–26) in order to secure a comfortable office. He began expanding the library's collections, notably in New Zealand paintings and drawings.
Not having to teach in 1919, he took the opportunity to advance his research on Moriori by visiting the Chatham Islands. Shipping was unreliable, so Skinner and a school inspector, denied a promised passage, stocked up with meat pies and stowed away in the coal hold of the Ngahere until the ship was out to sea. The Moriori were Skinner's first and major research interest. About 1906 he had noticed a discrepancy between the orthodox argument that Moriori were descended from a Melanesian people and the findings of osteologists, notably W. L. H. Duckworth (under whom he later studied at Cambridge), that Moriori were essentially Polynesian. His monograph, The Morioris of Chatham Islands, accepted for the Cambridge BA (Research) degree in 1923, effectively disposed of the 'Maruiwi' account of Maori and Moriori origins and freed ethnology and archaeology from dependence on the traditionalist arguments. His published views were opposed by older scholars such as Elsdon Best and Johannes Andersen.
In challenging conventional wisdom about Maori origins Skinner saw the advantages of archaeological evidence, but he himself was not particularly attracted to fieldwork. He set up an archaeological section of the Otago branch of the New Zealand Institute about 1924, and embarked on excavations at Little Papanui and elsewhere. Generally, however, he preferred to encourage excavations by others, notably by David Teviotdale and Leslie Lockerbie, whom he appointed to museum positions in 1929 and 1947 respectively.
Skinner's primary research was ethnological. His method involved the precise classification of objects based on discrete morphological characteristics, allied to a close analysis of distribution. Similar forms or traits were traced through artefact collections on the explicit understanding that resemblance implied common ancestry. It was applied most particularly to Maori and Polynesian material culture. His adze typology, first published in 1923, was adapted by Roger Duff in 1940 to become the standard classification in East Polynesian research. Underpinning the comparative method was a diffusionist perspective, acquired from Haddon, von Hügel and W. H. Rivers, as well as from Clark Wissler at Yale University, under whom Skinner took a graduate course as a Rockefeller travelling fellow in 1927. Wissler's assumption of the peripheral survival of older forms in later cultures had impressed Skinner, and he adapted it to the New Zealand region in 1921; it led to a close study of the morphological evolution of artefacts and, for the first time, revealed significant regional variation in Maori culture.
The most active period of Skinner's research was before the Second World War. He published frequently, and both his methods and enthusiasm, especially in his work on southern Maori material culture, inspired several generations of his students and set the pattern for South Island archaeology until the 1980s. He was awarded the Percy Smith Prize in Anthropology in 1925 and the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1926, was elected a fellow of the New Zealand Institute in 1927, and received the Andree Medal in 1936. A DSc was conferred upon him by the University of New Zealand in 1938.
The demands of Skinner's museum duties increased with his appointment to the directorship in 1937, and it is his influence on the revival of the Otago Museum which is generally regarded as the greatest contribution of his career. W. B. Benham, the museum's curator, observed early his rare gift for attracting benefactions, as Skinner set about building the museum collections. Close relationships were forged with wealthy citizens, notably Willi Fels, and the Association of Friends of the Otago Museum was established in 1926. By 1951 Skinner could report that the museum was richer by more than 100,000 acquisitions since 1919. Maori items were his first priority, but he also obtained important material from the Pacific and the Middle East, much of it by swapping Maori artefacts or moa bones that he regarded as duplicate items.
Skinner retired as reader in anthropology in 1952 and as director of the museum in 1953, and concluded a four-year term as president of the Polynesian Society in 1954. He was the founding chairman of the New Zealand Archaeological Association council in 1955, was appointed a CBE in 1956, and was awarded an honorary LittD by the University of Otago in 1962. A festschrift, Anthropology in the south seas, was published in 1959, and a volume of his papers, Comparatively speaking, in 1974. Ill with Alzheimer's disease, he died at Ross Home, Dunedin, on 9 February 1978. Eva Skinner had died in 1963, and he was survived by their son.
H. D. Skinner had a profound influence on the development of anthropology and ethnology in New Zealand. His comparative, taxonomic analyses of Maori material culture prescribed the method and objectives of the discipline for more than 50 years. His teaching inspired several generations of archaeologists, especially in southern New Zealand, and his distinguished directorship of the Otago Museum brought it from provincial obscurity to national significance.