The McLean Museum in Greenock opened in the 1870s, funded by a wealthy local timber merchant from whom the museum takes its name. It was built adjacent to the James Watt Library which had been opened as a monument to the Greenock born engineer and inventor in the 1830s. With the formation of the local philosophical society in 1861, it became increasingly clear that a purpose built museum building was needed for a growing collection. At that time Greenock, which is on the west coast of Scotland along the Firth of Clyde from Glasgow, was a thriving port. It was a centre for trade and export with people using the port to travel in and out of Scotland, as well as being a significant industrial hub. The early collections at the McLean were largely built through associations with wealthy merchants and traders, particularly those born in the Greenock area who had left their home to travel the world but who always considered Greenock home. Knowing there were important collections at the McLean and keen to find out more about them, Chantal and I went to Greenock for the day to meet with Val Boa (Curator) and George Woods (Assistant Curator). George and Val were great hosts and shared their invaluable in-depth knowledge of the museum and it’s collections with us.
Of all the world cultures material at the McLean, the largest proportion is geographically from Oceania and much of this material is Melanesian. We were delighted to discover on our visit that the McLean have arguably the best collection of New Ireland material in Scotland. These artefacts were donated by Captain David Swan, a Greenock born man who served with the local shipping company Gulf Line for around 25 years in which time he made many journeys across the western Pacific. He was in command of the ship Gulf of Genoa in the 1890s and given that he donated the New Ireland material in 1894 it seems likely he collected it when he was voyaged to New Ireland in 1893/1893 on that ship. The collection includes Malangan decorated with coloured cotton cloth which would have been traded into the island, known as tradecloth, and feathers. Swan also collected body ornaments.
We were interested to see a collection at the McLean from David M. Ballantine who was Treasurer and Controller of Customs in the British colonial administration in New Guinea. Ballantine, who was also born in Greenock, served under Sir William Macgregor who I introduced in a previous blog – MacGregor donated an important and extensive collection to University of Aberdeen Museums. Ballantine’s material was given to the McLean by his mother Jessie in 1911, two years after his death. It includes neck ornaments, stone headed clubs and other items from South East New Guinea.
The Mclean also has some material from Vanuatu from the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, and a small collection of objects from the Solomon Islands. There are several Fijian artefacts, donated by Thomas Steel, an industrial chemist and naturalist who worked at a sugar refinery at Nausori, Fiji. Greenock was a significant location for the sugar industry. Refining began there in in the 1760s. By the end of the 19th century, around 400 ships a year were transporting sugar from Caribbean holdings to Greenock for processing. The most famous company with an active refinery in the town was Tate & Lyle.
Before leaving the McLean we saw this impressive double hulled canoe model with pearl shell inlay and finely woven sails, donated to the 1870s.
It had been attributed to Polynesia and we were able to be more specific as there is a similar model at NMS which is on display in the Facing the Sea gallery. Details of this type of canoe are published in ‘Canoes of Oceania’ (Haddon & Hornell) and they are from Manihiki in the Cook Islands, Polynesia.
The museum still engages in contemporary collecting, the recent acquisition from the Pacific being material from Papua New Guinea. A large number of the Oceania collections at the McLean Museum are now available to search online and George told us that they are working towards getting the remaining objects digitised. You can access the online database here: