Dr Otto Samson was the Horniman Museum’s curator from 1947-1965. During his curatorship the collections were greatly expanded. In the World Gallery, he is most closely associated with the collection he acquired in Poland in 1963.
Born in Hamburg Samson received a classical education at the University of Freiburg, then in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg before beginning his professional career at the Hamburg Museum of Ethnography (Hamburgisches Museum fur Volkerkunde) in 1928. In 1929, he accompanied the head of department, Theodor-Wilhelm Danzel on a field collecting trip to China. During the trip, Samson travelled extensively in North China, contributing significantly to the three thousand item collection. His return to Germany was an unhappy one, with the Nazi seizure of power eventually leading to his dismissal from the museum on 'lawful grounds' due to his Jewish background. Soon afterwards he immigrated to London in late 1933 and found work thanks to the British social anthropologist, Charles Gabriel Seligman, who found him a position in the University College's Galton laboratory working on a collection of human remains from Southern Sudan. This was followed by an application for a travel grant, the Tweedie Exploration Fellowship, to India chiefly to 'study the material culture of villages in the Punjab and near Darjeeling with a view to determining Chinese connections". This trip broadened to also include collecting material within Burma and Tibet and lasted two years. After his return to England he soon began working within the Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography Department at the British Museum. He rose to become temporary Assistant Keeper (second class) in the department before taking the curatorship at the Horniman Museum in 1947 (a role he held until 1965).
During his curatorship, Samson greatly expanded the Horniman collection and collection strategy through several different initiatives. This included the establishment of a post in ethnomusicology and active collection of musical instruments; collecting through his own personal network including specimens he himself obtained from India during his trip in the thirties; and also the disposal of ethnographic collections by other museums in the 1950s including the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Woodlands Museum in Gillingham, Church Missionary Society, Reading Museum, the Royal Museum in Canterbury, the Wellcome Historical Museum and the Imperial Institute. The acquisition of masks was a central part of his collecting strategy but unusually at the time included specimens of English and European origin. This later emphasis characterised a collection strategy that was extended in the late fifties and early sixties with European ethnographic material being transferred or bought from various countries which include a large and significant ethnographic collection from Romania.
CreditObituary: Dr Otto William Samson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (New Series) (1976), 108 : pp 93-94 (DOI: 10.1017/S0035869X00133301)
D A Swallow. 'Oriental Art and the Popular Fancy: Otto Samson, Ethnographer, Collector and Museum Director - Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (New Series) (1989), 121: pp 5-31 (DOI http:dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0035869X0016784X)