Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Anthropology at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropology as:

The science of man, or of mankind, in the widest sense. ... The science of the nature of man, embracing Human Physiology and Psychology and their mutual bearing. ... The ‘study of man as an animal’ (Latham). The branch of the science which investigates the position of man zoologically, his ‘evolution,’ and history as a race of animated beings.

See here for Penniman and Balfour's views on anthropology.

The students who studied in the museum from the 1890s were taught the 'Diploma in Anthropology. In 1907, for example, it was reported:

Students for the Diploma in Anthropology have worked regularly in the Museum and have received courses of instruction from me in the subjects of Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology. Some material has been added specifically with a view to improving the series for teaching purposes. [Museum Annual Report 1907]

The same course is now called [various degrees in] Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. Further information about this course can be found here.

On March 25 1944 Beatrice Blackwood read a paper to the Oxford Social Studies Association called What is Anthropology and why study it? A typescript version of this talk is held in the Blackwood papers in the Pitt Rivers Museum manuscript collections. [BB box 21] In the paper she makes the following comments:

The point I want to make here is that Anthropology is a discipline, and those who wish to follow it must go through the mill just as thoroughly as if they were studying Physics or Chemistry. It has its own methods and techniques, the use of which requires as much training and experience as those of any other science.

Anthropology was divided in three parts, but the material and social parts ‘are sometimes grouped together under the name Cultural Anthropology’

Now, as you will be thinking, Anthropology as thus defined includes all aspects of the life and culture of all the people of the earth at all stages of their history, past and present. In practice, however, it is tacitly agreed that the sudy of the recorded past of these areas of the world which it is customary to call civilized, shall be the province of the historian, and that present-day problems arising among our own people shall be dealt with by the sociologist. But these provinces inevitably overlap, and the dividing lines seem to be getting somewhat blurred… We regard Archaeology as an integral part of Anthropology, but, like other sections of the Master-Science it can, and does, become so highly specialised that some portions of it form a life-work in themselves, such as Classical Arcaheology or Egyptology.

The aim of the anthropologist should be to see the culture of the people he is studying in the round, as a living thing, although through limitations of time, training, ability and inclination, he must needs choose aspects to work upon in greater detail than others.

In a personal letter in 1955 Blackwood talked more about anthropology, responding to an enquiry about anthropology as a career:

Of course I, personally, think there is no career to beat it, but I have been exceptionally lucky both in opportunities for field work and in having a good University post to come back to.
I would like to supplement what I have said on the enclosed sheet by saying that I would strongly urge your friend’s daughter to take her first degree in a subject other than Anthropology. We have considered at high level and at great length the advisability fo making an Honour School of Anthropology at Oxford, and have decided to keep it as a post-graduate Diploma, partly at least on the grounds that it is really not an undergraduate subject. I don’t think it matters what subject is chosen for one’s first degree. I took the English School. Marett was a lawyer, Balfour a zoologist, Penniman and Buxton were Greats men, and this, of course, I still consider the finest discipline of all, but only for those who are suited to it. Geography or Geology would also make a good start. What matters is to have had the discipline, and to have learned to be critical and to use evidence. From what I hear, the arrangement at Cambridge, where Anthropology is part of a Tripos, including Anglo-Saxon and other things, does not work very well, and I know that Mr. Penniman, who has examined for it, agrees with me on this matter.
You will see from the enclosed syllabus that the Diploma Examination requirements have expanded a good deal since the time when you took it. The subject has grown so enormously of late years that it was considered best to give students an opportunity to pay more attention to one branch than to the other two and to arrange the choice of papers accordingly. While realizing the extent of the subject, I still think that the old Diploma, giving equal weight to all three aspects, was better, but my colleagues do not all share this opinion. This is an age of specialists – I only hope it does not become one in which the specialists, in the words of the old tag, ‘know everything about nothing.
Enclosed sheet of paper 'Anthropology as a career'
1. length of course required – really need a research degree as well as undergrad or grad diploma, so at least three and probably four years of training after the B.A. degree
2. type of position available – University teachers home or overseas, at present very limited but may be more in the future, particularly few posts in physical anthropology, for arch and eth also museum posts ‘often concerned solely with the administration and arrangment of a museum ... Very few posts in Anthropology run to four figure salaries at present, these being for senior people of considerable experience. ... Summing up, it can be said that Anthropology offers a varied, useful, very interesting and sometimes strenuous life, but little in the way of financial advantage.
[Taken from a letter to Herbert ?Pinney University of Southampton, 25 Nov 1955, Blackwood papers, PRM manuscript collections Box 34, transcribed by Fran Larson as part of the Relational Museum project]


Further Reading

T.K. Penniman, 1965. A Hundred Years of Anthropology London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd

To find out more about the history of the teaching of anthropology at the University of Oxford please see:

Peter Riviére [ed.] 2007 A History of Oxford Anthropology Berghahn Books