Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Motion: Victorian models offer the best starting point for re-thinking the relationship between museums, archaeology and anthropology


On 6 March 2009 the seventh in the series of eight seminars about Victorian anthropology after Stocking had to be quickly re-arranged when the scheduled speaker (Sarah Byrne) had to cancel her talk at the last minute, very unexpectedly. It was decided to hold a debate loosely based upon the topic of Sarah's paper, 'Victorian models offer the best starting point for re-thinking the relationship between museums, archaeology and anthropology'. The motion was proposed by Chris Wingfield, seconded by Jeremy Coote and opposed by Dan Hicks and Chris Morton. Alison Petch chaired the debate. Chris Wingfield and Alison were very grateful to Dan, Jeremy and Chris Morton who stepped into the breach at such short notice and argued for and against the motion so eloquently. Before the debate commenced a vote was taken of the audience to see what their initial response to the emotion was: the result of this vote was 12 votes for, 11 against and 4 abstentions.

The format of the debate was that the proposer spoke first, followed by the opposer, the second proposer and the second opposer. Each speaker spoke for 10 minutes (the Chair was very grateful to them all that they kept to the agreed timing without the need for intervention). Then the debate was opened to the floor, the audience raising points for about 25 minutes, before the main proposer and opposer responded. The audience was then asked to vote for and against the motion. This time the response was 12 votes for the motion and 23 against with 2 abstentions. The motion was therefore lost. It is believed that this was the first time that a Pitt Rivers Museum's Friday seminar had involved a formal debate and votes.

Proposal by Chris Wingfield in support of the motion

In starting the proposition for the motion I would like to appeal to the Chair for an amendment to the motion. Despite the fact that it was me who hurriedly scribbled it out in the first place on Tuesday morning when it became clear our speaker couldn’t come, it has troubled me over the last couple of days. In particular when I started to think about what was meant by Victorian Models, I struggled to be clear. The Victorian period, perhaps like any other, encompassed many different people with many different ideas about how Archaeology, Anthropology and Museums should relate to one another. But that is precisely the point in a way. There is a richness that would help us to break out of the way in which the history of anthropology is routinely taught – a unilineal progressivist evolutionary story, of precisely the kind that was meant to characterise Victorian Anthropology and not later times.

The stereotypical caricature of the Victorian Anthropologist is the armchair anthropologist, compiling detailed racial hierarchies of the people of the world. At the beginning of Michel Foucault’s 'History of Sexuality', he draws attention to the fact that conventional histories rely upon the image of the “Victorian Prude” as an historical “other” against which to project a model of enlightened and unrepressed sexuality in the twentieth century. He argues that the Victorian Other tells us more about how the twentieth century envisaged itself than anything about the Victorian age. So the “armchair anthropologist” tells us that twentieth century anthropology and archaeology were first and foremost subjects that relied on a fieldwork mode of production. It also tells us that crucial to many notions of anthropology was a culturally relativist understanding that sought to do away entirely with ethnocentrism and assumed hierarchies. However papers in this series have already suggested that Victorian anthropologists carried out fieldwork, and that many interpretations of the past, such as at Swiss Lake Villages drew on ethnographic data precisely to attempt to begin to get away from ethnocentric assumptions.

If the motion was instead ‘Victorian anthropology offers the best starting point for re-thinking the relationship between museums, archaeology and anthropology’ then I could argue not only for Anthropology as practiced in the Victorian period, but the complex historical picture conjured up by George Stocking in his book 'Victorian Anthropology' from which this seminar series takes its starting point. We might take Stocking as our guide to the big questions about the nature of humanity that Victorian Anthropologists set out to answer, and the start to re-think the ways in which we would want to answer or try to answer those questions today. Stocking makes clear that Victorian Anthropology was the starting point for institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum which brought together archaeology and anthropology as a means of trying to fill in the long history of humanity, and work out the relationships between humans in different parts of the world.

If Victorian Anthropology and therefore Victorian models are the starting point of the institutions and disciplines we inhabit today, then they must surely be the starting point for any attempts to re-think these. If Anthropology is etymologically a conversation or discourse about humanity, and archaeology a conversation about the past, then it is surely useful to understand the beginnings of that conversation if one is to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation as it is carried out today. Today questions of materiality and history are once again finding a significant place in Anthropology, as are analyses of museums and explorations of museum collections. Archaeology continues to draw on ethnography as an inspiration for interpretation, but can also offer crucial theoretical insights due to its longer term engagement with materiality and the past. It is perhaps significant that key anthropological thinkers today, such as Danny Miller and Henrietta Moore, were once regarded as archaeologists by their social anthropologist colleagues when they applied to join the Association of Social Anthropologists [ASA] which functioned as an exclusive professional organization in the mid-twentieth century. By contrast, the theme of the ASA conference this year is 'Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future'.

This conference theme makes clear that in order to think about the future, it is necessary to engage with both the present and the past. We can’t afford to draw arbitrary lines in the sand such as 1922 for the disciplinary history of anthropology. 1922 is a crucial year because not only was it the year of the publication of Malinowski’s 'Argonauts' and Radcliffe-Brown's 'Trobriand Islanders', but it was also the year when Joyce’s 'Ulysses' was published and Eliot’s 'The Wasteland'. This was a year when the rulebook was torn up and modernists sought to break from the past. The stereotype of the Armchair Anthropologist had its genesis at precisely this time, as the past and questions about the past were rejected in favour of the tyrrany of the present, and of presentist functionalist interpretations.

I am not arguing that we should return wholesale to Victorian Anthropology, or that we should redeploy problematic assumptions of racial and cultural hierarchy or ethnocentric assumptions about civilization. What I am rather saying is that we cannot afford to ignore the contribution that Victorian Anthropologists made to the foundation of anthropology. In addition there are questions that they attempted to answer, such as the widespread occurrence of animist thinking that remain a source of concern for many in the cognitive sciences to this day, as Emma Cohen’s paper in this series made clear.

Although Victorian Anthropology is often taught as Evolutionism followed by Diffusionism, I would suggest that rather than these being committed positions they were frequently empirical questions that institutions like the Pitt Rivers Museum were built to attempt to answer. Fran Larson’s paper in this series considered the way in which Henry Balfour attempted to account for the geographical position of the composite bow, by dissecting the objects and considering the structural similarities in different parts of the world. The museum was a kind of laboratory for making visible certain sets of relations between objects. The questions about whether certain cultural forms developed independently in different parts of the world, or were adopted there through processes of diffusion and cultural copying have not gone away, it is just that anthropologists stopped asking them.

Instead they became content to define what their activity in terms of particular methods. Tim Ingold has argued recently that anthropology is not ethnography and we should add that neither is archaeology just excavation. Carrying out excavation or ethnography in an ever more diverse series of locations, such as the museum, does not do much to shift the self-perpetuating professional definitions of anthropologists and archaeologists. Victorian Anthropology, as the Relational Museum project argues, was a participatory anthropology and empowered many who were not professionally employed as anthropologists to take an interest in, and make a contribution to questions that concern all of us as human beings.

The inspiration I think we can take from Victorian Anthropology, and perhaps Victorian models such as the museum as laboratory is that excavation, ethnography and museum arrangement were all tools that could be used to answer particular questions. Victorian Anthropology did think of itself as a science, but not simply because it carried out a series of experiments or modeled itself on the natural sciences, but rather, as Collingwood has argued in the case of history, because anthropology was about asking a set of questions and finding ways of answering them.

The big question we need to answer perhaps is what questions do we think we can use museums, archaeology and anthropology to answer today. They are certainly not the same as those of our Victorian Ancestors, since some of those such as the question of the biological unity of humans as a single species have now been answered. However in other ways this and other questions continue to have reverberations, and rather than get caught in a side argument, generated by the self-perpetuating methodological professionalism of the twentieth century, we might seek to renew the conversation and the discourse by re-visiting the source of the argument, and re-thinking not only the relationship of archaeology, anthropology and museums, but the big questions that these things were originally created to serve.

[Please note: the chair did not allow an altered motion to be put, the original motion was retained throughout]

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