The George W. Harley Collection reflects the selection process of George Harley and the way in which he viewed and categorized the material culture of the African peoples with whom he lived and worked. Harley's years of medical work and anthropological collecting coincided with a period of rapid culture change in Liberia. By this time, for example, the secret men's societies, or Poro societies, were outlawed and under increasing pressure to disband. Harley was thus able to collect the masks of these once-powerful organizations.
Harley's collecting was also influenced by the prevailing theoretical paradigms of anthropology during this period, which emphasized both the active development of museum collections for anthropological research and a functionalist approach to the analysis of peoples and cultures. The influence of functionalism on Harley is most noticeable in his attempt to create a typological classification for masks and to link that typology with aspects of social structure in the Liberian villages adjacent to the Ganta Mission.