Former Auckland Museum Director Sir Gilbert Archey recognised posthumously as Aotearoa New Zealand’s own ‘Monuments Man’

Blog by Dr David Gaimster, former Tumu Whakarae Chief Executive of Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Art and cultural heritage are often among the early casualties of war, suffering destruction and theft amidst the chaos of conflict. As part of the Allied war effort, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) was established in 1943, mobilising museum personnel, art curators, scholars, architects, librarians, and archivists, to protect and preserve artworks, and historic and cultural monuments in the face of the most devastating conflict the world had ever known. 

Of the 345 Monuments Men and Women active during and after World War Two, most operated in Europe, recovering art and other cultural objects stolen by the Nazis and hidden away in caches in jails, castles, mines, and even in coffins. 

Outside of Europe, there was a sole Monuments Man stationed in South-East Asia, working tirelessly to protect churches, temples, monuments and archives in Sumatra, Malaya, Thailand, Java, and Indo-China.

His name, Gilbert Archey: our very own Monuments Man, and former Director of Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Gilbert Archey  (C) Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 

At 24, Gilbert Archey began his museum career as Assistant Curator for Canterbury Museum in 1914, and served during World War I with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force from 1916. For his services in the war, he was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1919. At the war's close, Archey resumed his work at the Canterbury Museum, and from there was appointed director of the Auckland Institute and Museum in 1924. 

Archey was instrumental in the development of the Museum during a period of significant growth. He oversaw the construction of the Museum's current building, completed in 1929, and he led the development of many of the Museum's displays, research facilities, and education programmes. Archey is also recognised for leading contributions to studies of Māori and Pacific art, and to New Zealand zoology. His 1922 study of native frogs led to the rare species L. Archeyi being named in his honor. Today, the species is commonly nicknamed “Archey’s frog.”

At the outbreak of the Second World War, due to his work in museums in New Zealand, Archey was seconded to the South East Asia Command, under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies, where he worked with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme from 1945-1946.

After returning to New Zealand in 1946, Archey returned to his position as Director of Auckland Museum and remained committed to the preservation of Eastern art and culture. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1958 and created Knight Bachelor in 1962. After 40 years of Directorship at the Auckland Museum he was appointed Director Emeritus on his retirement.

Sir Gilbert Archey died in Auckland, New Zealand on October 20, 1974, shortly after completing his final book,Whaowhia: Maori art and its artists (1977).

60th anniversary of Auckland Institute, 1927, Gilbert Archey pictured second from the right. Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-PR-182.

To acknowledge the part Archey played in protecting artworks and cultural sites in Southeast Asia, the Monuments Men and Women Foundation have donated a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal – the United States' highest civilian award – to Auckland Museum. The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded in 2015 to surviving Monuments Men and Women for their work protecting and preserving monuments, works of art, and culturally important artefacts during and following World War II. 

The donation of the replica medal to the Museum was championed by Archey’s granddaughter Elizabeth Meers, who has researched Archey’s biography in the Museum’s archives and library. Elizabeth contacted the Monuments Men and Women Foundation, prompting the organisation to recognise Archey’s service as a Monuments Man through the presentation of two replica medals, one to his family and one to the Museum.

Chief Executive David Gaimster accepting the medal donation from Elizabeth Meers.

Sir Gilbert Archey was a hugely important figure in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand’s museums, both as a scholar and an innovator in the profession. He was dedicated to the research of taonga Māori and New Zealand zoology, oversaw not only the construction of Museum building but also significant extensions, and led the development of facilities and practices in research and education that have evolved into programmes we have today.

-Auckland Museum Chief Executive Dr David Gaimster

The replica medal was presented to the Museum by Archey’s family at a special ceremony on Saturday 13 May. With over 70 members of the extended Archey whānau in attendance, it was a deeply heartening and meaningful occasion, made possible by the hard work and caring of the Archey family and Auckland Museum staff. Gilbert Archey's extraordinary work in ethnology, zoology, and in New Zealand Museums as well as his work as a Monuments Man in South-East Asia have contributed to a remarkable and well-deserved legacy. 

Gilbert Archey (C) Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.