David Boston, who has died aged 89 of cancer, had an outstanding career in museums including 28 years as director at the Horniman Museum, whose future he helped secure when it was threatened by the abolition in 1985 of its funder, the Greater London council, by the Conservative government.
Instead of it being consigned to a local authority that he knew could not afford to maintain it, Boston won the argument to gain the Horniman direct government funding, in effect giving it national museum status.
The Horniman, which is in Forest Hill, south-east London, boasts world-class collections, including ethnographic, natural history and musical instruments, all set in glorious public gardens. It began in the drawing-room of a millionaire tea importer, Frederick Horniman, who wanted “to bring the world to Forest Hill”, then a genteel leafy Victorian suburb of large villas.
As his international agents sent back crates of objects including thousands of works of art, musical instruments, costumes, jewellery and weapons, he admitted the public two afternoons a week free, and often guided them around personally. Eventually his family said either the collection had to leave or they would, and in 1901 it was rehoused in a striking purpose-built building.
By the time Boston arrived in 1965 the collection – now of 350,000 objects – was again bursting the seams of its building.
One of his first moves, invisible to the public but crucial to the staff, was finding storage and study space in Greenwich, which is where the bulk of the collection is still housed. This freed space for Boston to make major improvements including room for temporary exhibitions, and a dedicated education space for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited every year and had been sitting on floors or packed into the lecture theatre.
Michael Houlihan, his deputy and successor as director, described Boston’s “structured and focused education work” as unusual in its day and a model for other museums. The impressive education provision proved a valuable argument in the later dispute over the museum’s future.
The museum’s magnificent Victorian conservatory, a valuable revenue earner as an events space, is another monument to Boston’s time. It was rescued from dereliction at the Horniman family home in Croydon and rebuilt in the museum’s gardens, with the enthusiastic support of the comedian Spike Milligan.
The Horniman is renowned for field work by its staff and close engagement with the makers of pieces in its collection, an ethos that chimed perfectly with Boston’s lifelong belief in the wisdom, skills and importance of Indigenous peoples.
A year after arriving at the museum he organised the creation of an intricate sand painting by Fred Stevens, a Navajo artist and medicine man. Traditionally such works would be destroyed as part of the ritual, but Boston managed to persuade Stevens that his painting should be preserved for the museum collection – and then had to work out how. He wrote later that it remained his favourite museum object.
Another project was the museum’s spectacular 20ft totem pole, carved in 1985 by Nathan Jackson, a Tlingit Alaskan. Boston’s daughter Janet recalled that at least once a year their three children were evicted from their bedrooms by the arrival of museum guests including a Mongolian academic and a Lapp reindeer herder, and many family holidays, including long train journeys across Europe and a marathon expediton from Canada to South America, were to places he was also researching.
David was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where his father, Merrick Boston, was a GP and his mother, Jessie (nee Ingham), a nurse. He and his mother were evacuated during the second world war by ship: their intended destination was Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), but in his words they “got off at Cape Town instead”, where he attended school.
The family returned to Britain, and on graduating in history from Selwyn College, Cambridge, Boston won a postgraduate scholarship to South Africa, but returned after a year due to his revulsion at the apartheid regime.
In his first museum post, at the Liverpool Museum, where he worked from 1956 to 1962, he was tasked with retrieving parts of the collection from wartime safe storage sites – and in a crate of metal he found one of the museum’s star objects, a beautiful 17th-century Benin bronze head of a queen mother, one of only four known in the world.
Publicity about the find led to his meeting Catharine Parrinder, who worked for the British Council, and they were engaged within months. On return from their Sardinian honeymoon in 1962, they discovered they would not be living in Liverpool as planned, since Boston had just been appointed assistant keeper of new world archaeology and ethnography at the British Museum in London, where his first task was drawing objects from the collection in a museum still dubious about the value of photography. He left the British Museum for the Horniman in 1965.
Appointed OBE in 1976, he retired from the Horniman in 1993, but remained an active member of many museum organisations, national and international. He became tenant and honorary curator of Quebec House, in Westerham, Kent, the childhood home of General James Wolfe, now run by the National Trust, where he set about establishing international links with other Wolfe sites, and where Catharine organised the small army of volunteers.
He remained honorary librarian and archivist at the property after they moved to another house in Westerham, where he also organised conservation work and exhibitions in the beautiful medieval church, and repair work on the war memorial, and also led a successful campaign for a one-way route around the traffic-choked village green.
The couple’s adventurous journeys by the cheapest means possible continued, often joining much younger travellers, and into his last months he was still planning new excursions.
Boston is survived by Catharine, and their children, Janet, Peter and Andrea, and grandson, Liam.