Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Henry Balfour and the intentions of the founding collection

In 1904 Balfour recorded his views about the founding collection, which show his beliefs in which disciplines he thought Pitt Rivers' had been addressing with use of the collection

It was about the middle of the last century that an officer in Her Majesty’s Army began to apply the lessons which he had learnt in the course of some of his professional experimental work to studies pursued by him as a hobby in a far wider field of science. The story of the famous ethnographical collection of Colonel Lane Fox is well known, and I need but briefly refer to it. During his investigations, conducted with a view to ascertaining the best methods whereby the service firearms might be improved ... he was forcibly struck by the extremely gradual changes whereby improvements were effected. He observed that every noteworthy advancement in the efficiency, not only of the whole weapon but also of every individual detail in its structure, was arrived at as a cumulative result of a succession of very slight modifications, each of which was but a trifling improvement upon the one immediately preceding it. Through noticing the unfailing regularity of this process of gradual evolution in the case of firearms, he was led to believe that the same principles must probably govern the development of the other arts, appliances, and ideas of mankind. With characteristic energy and scientific zeal Colonel Lane Fox began at once, in the year 1851, to illustrate his views and to put them to a practical test. He forthwith commenced to make the ethnological collection with which his name will always be associated, and which rapidly grew to large proportions under his keen search for material which should illustrate and perhaps prove his theory of progress by evolution in the arts of mankind. Although as a collector he was somewhat omnivorous, since every artefact product fell strictly within his range of inquiry, his collection, nevertheless, differed from the greater number of private ethnological collections, and even public ones of that day, inasmuch as it was built up systematically with a definite object in view. It is unnecessary for me to describe in detail the system which he adopted in arranging his collection ... Suffice it to say that, in classifying his ethnological material, he adopted a principal system of groups into which objects of like form or function from all over the world were associated to form series, each of which illustrated as completely as possible the varieties under which a given art, industry or appliance occurred. Within these main groups objects belonging to the same region were usually associated together in local sub-groups. And wherever amongst the implements or other objects exhibited in a given series there seemed to be suggested a sequence of ideas, shedding light upon the probable stages in the evolution of this particular class, these objects were specially brought into juxtaposition. This special grouping to illustrate sequence was particularly applied to objects from the same region as being, from their local relationships, calculated better to illustrate an actual continuity. As far as possible the seemingly more primitive and generalized forms—those simple types which usually approach most nearly to natural forms, or whose use is associated with primitive ideas—were placed at the beginning of each series, and the more complex and specialised forms were arranged towards the end. The primary object of this method of classification by series was to demonstrate, either actually or hypothetically, the origin, development, and continuity of the material arts, and to illustrate the variations whereby the more complex and specialized forms belonging to the higher conditions of culture have been evolved by successive slight improvements from the simple, rudimentary and generalized forms of a primitive culture. The earlier stages of these sequence series were more especially the object of investigation, the later developments being in the greater number of cases omitted or merely suggested. It was necessary for Colonel Lane Fox to restrict the extent of the series, any one of which, if developed to the full extent, would easily have filled a good-sized museum. The earlier stages, moreover, were less familiar, and presented fewer complications. The general principles of his theory were as adequately demonstrated by the ruder appliances of uncivilized races as by the more elaborate products of peoples of higher culture; and, moreover, there was doubtless a great attraction in attacking that end of the development series which offered the prospect at least of finality, inasmuch as there was always a chance of discovering the absolute origin of a given series. Hence the major part of his collection consisted in specimens procured from savage and barbaric races, amongst whom the more rudimentary forms of appliances are for the most part to be found.’ [Balfour, 1904 Presidential Address to the Anthropological Section of BAAS: The Relationship of Museums to the Study of Anthropology. Journal of the Anthropological Institute 34 [1904] 10-19, Museums Journal vol 3 June 1904 pp 396-408.]