Detailed biographies describe the lives of twelve collectors of tribal art in Britain, active between 1770 and 1990. These men were rarely field collectors and only occasional travellers, but they were vigorous hunters, for whom the pursuit, handling and possession of such objects was what mattered.
The climax of the period of collecting from around 1880 to 1960 coincided with the maximum extent of Empire, when legions of explorers, missionaries, administrators, traders and military personnel brought back to Britain an inexhaustible quantity of exotic material. The sources for the collections included most of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, as well as tribal societies in Asia.
The collectors described here - a interesting mix of highly individualistic, eccentric and sometimes avaricious men - could, and did, quite reasonably claim that they were saving ethnographic material for the future. This was partly based on the widely held notion that tribal cultures were disappearing and the idea that some museums were negligent and uninterested in ethnography. Several of the collectors eventually created museums themselves, most notably Pitt Rivers.