Roger Shepherd Duff was born in Invercargill on 11 July 1912, the son of Jessie Barclay and her husband, Oliver Duff, a schoolteacher who later became well known as a journalist and first editor of the New Zealand Listener. Roger was educated at Christchurch Boys’ High School, where he was dux in 1930, and the University of Otago and Canterbury University College, completing a BA (1935) and an MA with first-class honours in education in 1936. At Otago he studied anthropology under H. D. Skinner, who was to become both mentor and colleague. It was not possible to take anthropology to an advanced level and Duff therefore majored in education, the only social science subject available. His MA thesis, on the sociology of Tuahiwi Maori, reflected his early interest in Maori culture.
From 1935 to 1937 Duff worked as a cadet in the Samoan Public Service. He had intended to undertake a social anthropological study, but this proved impossible. The two years in Samoa fostered his interest in Polynesian culture and character; he learned some Samoan, and collected artefacts now in Canterbury Museum. In 1938 he was appointed ethnologist at Canterbury Museum. On 23 December that year, at Christchurch, he married Deirdre Milligan; they were to have three sons, but were divorced in 1953. He succeeded Robert Falla as director of the museum in 1948.
His first research project, from 1939 onwards, was the excavation of well-preserved complete moa skeletons at Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury. This was followed by his excavation, initially with a schoolboy assistant, Jim Eyles, at the archaeological site of Wairau Bar in Marlborough in 1942 and over many subsequent years. The artefacts uncovered there allowed Duff to establish conclusively that the Moa-hunters represented an early Maori culture. Initial reports on both projects were published rapidly. The Wairau Bar results were developed further in The moa-hunter period of Maori culture (1950), which earned Duff a DSc from the University of New Zealand in 1951. It was primarily for his work at Wairau Bar that Duff received a range of other academic honours and awards: the Percy Smith Medal from the University of Otago in 1948, fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1952, and that society’s Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1956.
True to his belief in the role of museums in education, Duff wrote short, popular, well-illustrated accounts of Pyramid Valley and Wairau Bar, as well as academic reports. Despite the poor excavation techniques employed at Wairau Bar, his description of the material culture of New Zealand’s early Polynesian inhabitants and its relationships with other Polynesian cultures remains a landmark in the study of New Zealand prehistory.
A British Council scholarship in 1947 enabled Duff to visit museums in the United Kingdom. At this time he and Skinner were involved in negotiations for the purchase of the Oldman collection of Maori and Polynesian artefacts. Duff was able to visit W. O. Oldman in London, and the collection was purchased by the New Zealand government in 1948. It was originally intended for the Dominion Museum but was divided among the major New Zealand museums, a change for which Duff claimed credit. He returned from Britain with new ideas for museum displays (notably the colonial street), some of which were realised in the major extension opened in 1958.
For many years Duff balanced the demands of museum directorship with his interest in New Zealand and Pacific archaeology, continuing to lead the Canterbury Museum’s archaeological group. A SEATO fellowship and Wenner-Gren travelling scholarship in 1961 enabled him to study stone adzes in museums throughout South East Asia. He led two archaeological expeditions to the Cook Islands between 1962 and 1964, returning in 1969 as a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand Cook bicentenary expedition.
It was Duff’s misfortune that the publication of his major work was quickly overtaken by academic appointments of overseas-trained archaeologists at Auckland from 1954 and Otago from 1959 and their introduction of new methodological and theoretical approaches to archaeology and prehistory. As the years passed his reaction to legitimate academic criticism became increasingly personal. He was sometimes patronising to younger scholars and vindictive towards those he considered rivals.
Duff joined the staff of the Canterbury Museum when it was emerging from a long period of financial difficulty and stagnation. He led it through a new period of stable administration and more assured funding and left it with a building that had almost trebled in size and a staff that had increased five-fold. Another major extension, with an Antarctic theme, was opened in 1977 in recognition of the long association of Canterbury with south-polar exploration. A Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship in 1967 had enabled Duff to visit overseas museums and gain new ideas.
Duff inspired great loyalty in his supporters and some long-serving staff, although others found him difficult. In his fund-raising campaigns he was always able to rely on the strong support of the Association of Friends of the Canterbury Museum. His second marriage, at Christchurch on 7 May 1964, was to Myrtle Jessie McLachlan, who survived him. Myrtle was a long-serving secretary to the director and the Canterbury Museum Trust Board and one of her husband’s most loyal supporters.
Roger Duff had a strong vision of the museum as a lively and popular centre of public education. Not only was he able to raise funds for building extensions, but he provided the inspiration for innovative displays. He had a high public profile in Canterbury and was recognised for his willingness to talk to people of all kinds – from schoolchildren to visiting dignitaries – and for the emphasis he placed on communicating with the public. At a time when many museums displayed Maori culture but ignored Maori people, he enjoyed good relations with local Maori and other Polynesians. Although Canterbury Museum was his great passion, he promoted the common cause of regional museums and served as council member or officer of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand almost continuously from 1947 until his death. He organised a Cook bicentenary exhibition for the association in 1969–70. His contributions to the museum movement were recognised by his election as one of the first 12 fellows of the association in 1956 and the award of a CBE in 1977.
Duff also took an active role in other cultural affairs. In 1959 he was elected to the National Historic Places Trust as representative of the members; he was returned at every subsequent election until his death. He was active in the New Zealand Archaeological Association in its early years. He had a long involvement in UNESCO and under its auspices organised a travelling exhibition, The Art of Oceania, in 1975–76. Roger Duff’s sudden collapse in his beloved museum and death on 30 October 1978 signalled the end of an era in which the distinctive individual stamp of the director showed clearly in all aspects of the museum’s activities.