Amassed by the Melbourne-based anthropologist and biologist, Professor Donald Thomson (1901-70) during a professional career that spanned five decades. The collection has almost 7500 artefacts and 2000 biological specimens collected mainly on Cape York (1928-33), in Arnhem Land (1935-37, 1942-43), and from the Great Sandy Desert and the Gibson Desert of Western Australia (1957, 1963, 1965). Over 800 objects from the Solomon Islands and West Papua were collected during Thomson's WW2 service (1940-43). In addition there are also over 2,500 pages of handwritten unpublished field notes with 7000 typed foolscap pages of transcriptions, around 11,000 images, 25,000 feet of colour film, numerous reel-to-reel audio tapes, around 350 scientific illustrations of biological specimens and anthropological objects, over 260 sets of maps, copies of Thomson's published and unpublished articles, and an archive of newspaper clippings.
The Donald Thomson Collection has been on long-term loan to the Museum from the University of Melbourne and the Thomson family since 1973. For sheer quantity and diversity it ranks amongst the most important anthropological collections in the world, and in 2008 the ethnohistoric component was inscribed onto the Australian Memory of the World Register.
The collection's strength lies in the detailed documentation linking objects, images, language and customary practice, economics, trade and knowledge of the natural world. Thomson sought to create a collection that was representative of all aspects of life. He documented the sophistication and specialisation associated with creating the material world and its distinctions that reflect the age, status and gender of its user or maker. He further documented and collected those aspects that reveal the influences of outsiders demonstrating the capacity of Aboriginal societies to adapt to change, in stark contrast to the stereotypical view of Indigenous Australians as 'stone age' people.