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Photograph of Baron Anatole von Hügel

Baron Anatole von Hügel


Baron Anatole von Hügel (1854-1928)

The son of a German baron originally from Saxony and a Scottish mother brought up in India, Anatole von Hügel was born in Florence in 1854. He spent his childhood in Brussels, where his father was Austrian envoy to Belgium, and moved to England in 1867. A Roman Catholic by faith, von Hügel was ineligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford and was educated at Stoneyhurst College where he read Philosophy. Suffering from bad health, he was advised to travel to a warmer climate and embarked on a trip to the South Pacific in 1874. Following his father's footsteps, von Hügel spent a month in Australia and New Zealand and then travelled on to Fiji, where he arrived just before the island group became a British colony in 1875. When he discovered that the flora and ornithology had already been studied, he immediately turned his attention to the Fijians themselves:

What struck me as stranger still – no one had thought of making a local ethnological collection. A few scattered native weapons or implements might certainly be found in the settlers' houses, but they were kept as 'curios', often for the sake of some sensational history which the owner could attach to them. Every dish was a cannibal dish, every club had been the instrument of some atrocious murder, and every stain on either was caused by blood. There were some 50,000 Fijians on the islands at the time I landed, and about 3,000 whites, but the 50,000 might have been so many cabbages for anything their white fellow creatures cared to know of them, their customs or their history. 1

Von Hügel thus set off to the interior of Fiji, the mountains of Viti Levu, and collected and recorded whatever information and objects he could find. Entranced by the beauty of Fiji, he learnt the language, made several friends and stayed until 1877. He also met Sir Arthur Gordon, the first Governor of Fiji, and Alfred Maudslay, another Cambridge man and collector. Maudslay later recalled that he once found von Hügel ‘half starved on native food, [having] spent all his money, and [having] even cut the buttons off his clothes in exchange for native ornaments.’ 2

Back in England von Hügel married Eliza Margaret Froude and, in 1883, was appointed curator of the new Museum of General and Local Archaeology in Cambridge, now the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Gordon and Maudslay collections about to come to Cambridge, he was an obvious yet also surprising choice. No doubt knowledgeable and well-connected, he was, however, also a foreigner and Catholic: denied access to Cambridge in the past, von Hügel was now made an MA and invited to join Trinity College. But there were further challenges ahead. When the Gordon and Maudslay collections arrived, there was not enough space to store and display them. Restricted to galleries on Little St Mary’s Lane (now the library of Peterhouse College), von Hügel embarked on an admirable campaign to raise funds for a proper museum on the New Museum Site (once the land of Downing College). In 1910, finally, Baroness Eliza was able to lay the foundation stone of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, as it was by then known, and by the end of World War I the museum was almost complete.

Fragment of secular cupA stone relief next to the museum’s entrance records this achievement to the present day. Von Hügel continued as director until 1921, when ill health forced him to resign. It was on this occasion and in recognition of his services to the arts and ethnology that the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum bought the fragment of a Romanesque cup from the Von Hügel Collection.

Cabinet of Fijian ivoriesThe following year Cambridge University awarded von Hügel a Sc.D. honoris causa and the next years he frequently returned to the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to arrange his Fijian ivories. Von Hügel died in Cambridge in 1928.

No account of von Hügel would be complete without the recognition that he was a deeply religious man. Throughout his life he devoted himself to Catholic causes and when Catholics were once more eligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford in 1895, he immediately founded, together with Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, a hall of residence in Cambridge. Established in 1896, St Edmund’s College soon became the preferred college for Catholic students and scholars in Cambridge and now also houses a research institute named after von Hügel. Founded in 1987, the Von Hügel Institute is a Roman Catholic research institute dedicated to the study of the relationship of Christianity and society.

Note: At the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Anatole von Hügel was succeeded by Louis Colville Gray Clarke. A man educated at Cambridge and Oxford and widely travelled in Central and South America and North Africa, Clarke shared von Hügel’s interest in European and non-European art and artefacts and later succeeded Sir Sydney Cockerell as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum.


1 A. von Hügel cited in V. Ebin and D. A. Swallow, 'The proper study of mankind ...' - Great Anthropological Collections in Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 1984, p. 13
2 A. P. Maudslay, Life in the Pacific Fifty Years Ago, London, 1930, p. 30

Selected Bibliography

V. Ebin and D. A. Swallow, 'The proper study of mankind ...' - Great Anthropological Collections in Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 1984, pp. 9-16

M. Garrett, Cambridge: A Cultural and Literary History, Signal Books, 2004

A. C. Haddon and A. P. Maudslay, 'Obituary: Anatole von Hügel', Man, vol. 28 (October 1928), pp. 169-171

N. Rogers (ed.), Catholics in Cambridge, Gracewing, 2003

J. F. V. Roth and S. Hooper (eds.), The Fiji Journals of Baron Anatole von Hügel, 1875-1877, Fiji Museum in association with Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1990

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Fragment of secular cup

Fragment of a secular cup, Germany, c. 1100 to 1200
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Photograph of cabinet of Fijian ivories

Cabinet of Fijian ivories set up by Baron Anatole von Hügel
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge