Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Henry Balfour's teaching at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Frances Larson

Diploma in Anthropology Class of 1910-11, Front Row Henry Balfour, Arthur Thomson and R.R. Marett

Diploma in Anthropology Class of 1910-11, Front Row Henry Balfour, Arthur Thomson and R.R. Marett

According to the University Gazette, Balfour gave his first official series of lectures to students during the Michaelmas Term of 1893. He talked on the 'Arts of Mankind’ and used objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections to illustrate his words. As Reader in Anthropology, Tylor had been giving a series of anthropology lectures every term since January 1884, but in 1893 his lectures were announced in the Gazette alongside Balfour’s and another series devoted to Physical Anthropology to be given by Arthur Thomson, then lecturer in (soon to become Professor of) Human Anatomy. A special notice announced that, while they were open to anyone who was interested, all these lectures were 'adapted to meet the requirements of Students taking up Anthropology as a Special Honour Subject’ at the University (13 June 1893, University Gazette XXIII: 603).

In 1895, Tylor led a petition to establish a final honour school in Anthropology at Oxford, but Convocation rejected his proposal, something he felt bitter about throughout his life. Anthropology could be taken as a special subject within the honour school of Natural Science, and this remained the case for undergraduate teaching until a final honour school was established. Balfour gave lecture series for students when he could from 1893 onwards, as well as various occasional lectures in and around Oxford. In 1894, for example, he ran another series on ‘Progress in the Arts of Mankind, particularly as illustrated by the Pitt-Rivers Collection’, as well as lecturing on ‘Primitive Musical Instruments considered especially in their relation to the early development of the higher forms’. Three years later he gave a course on the ‘Realistic and Decorative Art of Primitive People’. Balfour was not required to give lectures to students, and it would appear that he only did so when he could afford the time. In 1904, he noted in his Annual Report that because he had no assistant working in the Museum, and he himself had suffered from ill health, he had been unable to give lecture courses, but he had still given frequent informal instruction and demonstrations in the Museum during the year (University Gazette XXXV: 568). He spent time over the following two years tutoring Barbara Freire Marecco, who was at Lady Margaret Hall, and Cecil Mallaby Firth, at Exeter College, through a course in Prehistoric Archaeology at the Museum (University Gazette XXXVI: 608, XXXVII: 659).

It was not until 1905 that Anthropology teaching at Oxford became more centrally coordinated under the new Committee for Anthropology, which held its first meeting in October 1905 (Oxford University Archives [OUA], DC 1/2/1). The Committee included the Professors of Anthropology (Tylor), Human Anatomy, Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, Mental Philosophy, Comparative Philology, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Balfour, as Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum (OUA, DC 1/2/3, Paper 3). It was responsible for organizing the teaching and examining of students taking the new Diploma in Anthropology, which was established by University Statue during the Trinity Term of 1905 (OUA, DC 1/2/3, Paper 10). From the beginning, the Committee hashed out a syllabus, formulated a list of lectures and created a reading list for the students. Five men – Myres, Thomson, Balfour, Marett and Tylor – who together formed a Sub-Committee on Regulations for the Diploma, were central to driving and shaping the work of the new Committee through its earliest years.

Students taking the Diploma had to take courses in Physical Anthropology (subdivided into Zoology – ‘the zoological position of man’, Palaeontology – ‘the antiquity of man’, and Ethnology – the comparative study of man’s physical characteristics), and in Cultural Anthropology. This latter section of the syllabus was subdivided into: Archaeology, focusing on the remains of man’s ‘handiwork’ from the prehistoric periods and their ‘persistence…in later times’; Ethnology, which here referred to the comparative analysis of peoples based on their material culture, language, religious and social institutions; Sociology, including a study of government and law, moral ideas and codes, and magical and religious practices; and Technology, comprising a study of the origin, development and distribution of arts and industries. Students attended lectures and practical sessions in the relevant University department for each of these, and Balfour gave ‘informal demonstration-lectures’ at the Museum on prehistoric archaeology ‘and the survival of primitive conditions of culture amongst savage peoples’ (OUA, DC 1/2/3, Paper 17). He also gave ‘informal instruction’ on Comparative Technology, dividing his subject into the ‘useful arts’ and the ‘aesthetic arts’ (see, for example, (OUA, DC 1/2/3, Paper 108).

Thus, teaching formed a considerable part of Balfour’s working life from the 1890s onwards, and he took a central role in the founding of systematic anthropology teaching at the University. He continued to serve on the Committee for Anthropology throughout his life, and regularly acted as an examiner for the Diploma. Wilson Dallam Wallis, who started the Oxford Diploma in 1908 as a Rhodes Scholar, and later became Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, remembered his classes with Balfour nearly fifty years later:

Our work with Henry Balfour was done entirely in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, of which he was Curator, before exhibition cases which frequently were supplemented with trays or handfuls of additional specimens. He was especially interested in the development and distribution of technological products and processes, and sought to demonstrate both independent origins and diffusion. Many of the Museum cases contained maps indicating the distribution of boomerangs, types of basketry, and so on, and to these Balfour made additions from time to time. He thought there was a place in the world for a museum illustrating typology; I never heard him speak disparagingly of ethnographic arrangements. The handful of notes which he brought to the peripatetic lecture were suggestive of Darwin’s use of every scrap and kind of paper; they were any size and shape, sometimes interspersed with press clippings and portions of letters…The examination included written work six hours a day for three days, and an oral given jointly by Balfour, Marett and Thomson. We were called into a room individually, and when dismissed were not allowed to communicate with waiting victims. Balfour’s examination consisted largely of having us identify various specimens which we had not seen in the course of our work with him. [1957: 786-7]

During the Trinity Term of 1909 a University Statue was passed that recognised the diploma as equivalent to two pass subjects which could count towards students’ Second Public Examination in the Bachelor of Arts degree. This meant that, for the first time, students could combine an ordinary degree course with specialized study in anthropology (Committee for Anthropology Annual Report 1909, OUA, DC 1/2/3, paper 53). While the diploma would be equivalent to two pass subjects within the degree, a student taking either physical or cultural anthropology alone could claim one pass subject. For Balfour, the comparative study of technology, and prehistoric archaeology, were vital elements of the cultural anthropology course, which he felt should be as broad ranging as possible.

Beatrice Blackwood was taught by Balfour while studying for the Diploma in Anthropology from 1916 to 1918. Some of her lecture notes from the period survive, including notes she took during Balfour’s classes (BB box 1 and 1A). The lecture courses cover 'The Aesthetic Arts' and 'The Industrial Arts' and 'Prehistoric Archaeology'. The lectures follow Balfour’s written work, where applicable, very closely. Under the 'Aesthetic Arts', he discussed '1. art, decorative and realistic 2. music, mainly the instrumental side 3. personal ornament' (PRM manuscript collections: Beatrice Blackwood papers box 1). His lectures on the ‘Industrial Arts’ including fire-making technologies, ‘the art, or industry, of war’, fishing, the history of agriculture, navigation, and manufacturing industries, including pottery, textiles, basketry and metal work. The lectures combined a comprehensive overview of the main practices, techniques and finds from around the world, with some general theorizing about the probable historical and cultural relationships between different traditions: which was the most primitive, what course did the historical development take as practices spread from culture to culture, had things emerged independently or might there be a link between similar cultural traditions from different places. He used maps to show the global distribution of certain practices and technologies, and there are suggestions as to his use of objects during the lectures. During Balfour’s lecture on musical instruments, Blackwood has written, ‘Within this series a large amount of material to illustrate the evolution of type from simple to complex…’ (PRM manuscript collections: Beatrice Blackwood papers box 1) which suggests that the student were studying the series of musical instrument in the museum. She wrote notes on a ‘series of wooden spoons’ used to study the development of design; she inserted a list into her notebook of ‘inherently resonant materials caused to vibrate by percussion function’, including the clapper series, the gong series, the sistrum series, hollow rattles, etc; she wrote out a list of the Museum’s currency cases and objects used as currency. However, it is impossible to know whether these lists refer to her own lectures (added and worked on later) or to Balfour’s.

There are a couple of interesting references to General Pitt Rivers in Blackwood’. In each case, Balfour disagrees with Pitt Rivers’ theorizing. When discussing defensive weapons, Balfour distinguished shields – ‘a kind of screen’ – from parrying shields, which had their ‘origin in simple stick for warding off missiles’ (BB box 1A). He went on to explain that Pitt Rivers had argued that the shield ‘proper’ derived from the parrying shield, Balfour, Blackwood wrote, ‘won’t go as far as that – [and] prefers to say two lines of development…which to some extent borrowed ideas from each other – hybridised’ (ibid). During another lecture on ‘primitive navigation’, Balfour explained that Pitt Rivers believed the outrigger canoe was derived from log rafts. Bracing the outer logs together at some distance from each other meant that there was less resistance from the water. According to Pitt Rivers, it followed that one log developed into the canoe, while the other remained as a float. However, Blackwood noted that this theory was ‘not very satisfactory. H.B. thinks outrigger was evolved from double canoe – two canoes tied together are very stable’ (ibid).

Comparative technology and prehistoric archaeology were both subjects that demanded a serious, detailed and critical analysis of material culture. For Balfour, artefacts, studied carefully, were the hard evidence for cultural practices, and by tracing the geographical and historical distribution of different manufacturing techniques and design elements a world-wide picture of inter-cultural contact and innovation could be pieced together. No wonder Wilson Wallis remembered nomadic lectures, following Balfour around the display cases at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Objects were at the heart of Balfour’s learning and teaching, and this may well be part of the reason he did not rely on detailed lecture notes: the objects themselves told him what he needed to know about the history of human culture. Balfour’s belief that material culture provided a vital window on human nature, and his conviction that the parameters of anthropological investigation should be global as well as local, combining specialist regional research with broad conclusions about cross-cultural contact, came to be challenged towards the end of his life. It was only during the 1930s, when efforts were made to restructure the teaching of anthropology at Oxford, that the true strength of Balfour’s feelings on these matters were expressed. It is worth outlining the events of the 1930s to the extent that they cast light on Balfour’s increasingly isolated intellectual position during the last decade of his life and the passion with which he clung to his beliefs, which were rooted in an earlier time.

In late 1932 and throughout 1933, key figures in the teaching of Anthropology at Oxford – Myres, Marett, Balfour and others – began preparing a draft ‘Memorandum on the Position and Prospects of Anthropological Studies at Oxford’ to present to the University Council in the hope of attaining more funds for facilities and teaching staff. In his suggestions for the draft, Balfour was firm on two key points: that his teaching work at the Pitt Rivers Museum was designed to emphasise the close relationship between archaeological and ethnographic material, giving equal weight to both; and that the teaching of social anthropology should not be allowed to obscure either work on material culture or the study of physical anthropology.

I have throughout given the course in Prehistoric Archaeology which is prescribed in the schedule, devoting the whole Michaelmas Term to this. The other two terms are given to Comp. Technology (there here, too, the prehistoric material is combined with the Ethnological). Also … I have deliberately arranged the material in the P.R. Museum to bring into close relationship the Archaeol. + Ethnol. material, and make a point of the importance of this association … Then, there seems to be a suggestion…that anthropology should be dominated by one of its sections (Social Anthropology). This appears to me to be most undesirable + against the original scheme which divided Anthropology into three sections of equal status + importance (1. Physical 2 Technology + Prehist. Archaeol. + 3. Social). The School has, I consider, suffered as a whole from undue enthusiasm on behalf of one section…’ [2 February 1933. JLMP, MSS. 80]

Balfour was disagreeing with the suggestion that the Ashmolean Museum dealt with all archaeological material, pointing out that the Ashmolean’s collections covered only the late phases of prehistory and the early historic phases of archaeology (ibid). As is often the case, much effort was put into presenting a united front as far as the teaching of anthropology was concerned in order to achieve University investment for the future. Despite the efforts put into the Memorandum, University Council rejected the application for more funds in June 1934, but hope was kept alive by their promise to consider the requirements of anthropology as part of the University’s plan to apply for Rockefeller funding for social studies at Oxford. This sparked more work and debate on the financial costs of establishing a Anthropological Institute, and a second Memorandum outlined various requirements, including the need for a permanent Chair in Anthropology. In the event, it was an endowment from All Souls which led to the establishment of a Chair two years later. The new position was advertised in June 1936. Balfour wrote to Blackwood,

I am anxious about who will be chosen to fill the new professorship of Social Anthropology. There may be a big ‘field’ for it, but the electors are not likely to know much about the candidates + are quite likely to select the wrong one.’ (PRM manuscript collections: Beatrice Blackwood papers box 19, Balfour to Blackwood, 26 August 1936)

In the event, Balfour’s fears seem to have been well-founded, from his perspective at least. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was appointed in October that year.

The appointment of the new Professor led to more strife between the different strands of anthropology at Oxford. Well aware that Oxford lagged far behind Cambridge and London in terms of the number of students it attracted and the degrees offered, Radcliffe-Brown put together a draft proposal for a Final Honour School in Anthropology as soon as he arrived in Oxford, but he failed to properly consult other members of the Committee for Anthropology before doing so. The ensuing debate over the proper structure for anthropological teaching, and the limits of what could be achieved within certain bureaucratic structures at Oxford, were to continue well beyond the Second World War. Radcliffe-Brown was appalled at the low standard of the Oxford diploma, which provided one term of general ethnography, followed by two terms during which students could focus more on Physical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology or Technology and Prehistoric Archaeology (in other words, each student chose two of the three options and studied one per term). The problem was that each of the three parts of the Anthropology syllabus had grown in scope considerably over the first three decades of the twentieth century, and Radcliffe-Brown (supported by Wilfred Edward Le Gros Clark, the new Linacre Professor of Anatomy) felt the current diploma was so general and preliminary in scope as to be virtually useless. He proposed a new diploma in which students chose only one specialist area to which they devoted two full terms following their general training during the first term.

Balfour was dismayed at this plan. He thought that a single term of general study was a ‘ludicrous allowance’ given that the current diploma provided a full year of general anthropological grounding. He confided to Myres that he thought Radcliffe-Brown’s new structure would, ‘turn out a lot of incompetent ‘specialists’, with too little general preparation, and not enough within their own field to be of great use’. He also recognised that most students, many of whom were linked to the colonial service or planning a career in the colonies, would opt for social anthropology and therefore, ‘lose the valuable tie with those branches of the subject which require paying strict attention to concrete evidence which cannot be denied, and which gives solid foundation to the subject’ (JLMP, MSS. 80). For Balfour, material culture provided both hard data and the scope for a broad view, and he believed that striving for both of these elements had to be the ultimate aim of anthropological research, but he must have sensed that others disagreed.

John Linton Myres tried to mediate the situation. He agreed with Radcliffe-Brown that the standards for the diploma were too low, and felt that foundation for dividing the different elements of anthropology had been laid long ago when the University first started offering separate ‘Certificates’ in Physical and Cultural Anthropology for students who only took one term of specialist study. On the other hand, Myres had been a member of the original Committee who set up the first diploma, along with Balfour, and his sympathies lay with the tripartite system. On finding that Balfour – who seems to have been rather isolated, at least by the strength of his feelings on the matter – was ‘rather disturbed’ by Radcliffe-Brown’s proposals in late 1938, he encouraged Brown to make sure the opening course in general ethnography was as thorough as possible and kept integral to the whole plan, in an effort to alleviate Balfour’s grevances over the specialist nature of the new syllabus.

Discussions rumbled on, and in January 1939, Penniman, who was acting Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Balfour’s absence, and who was himself concerned by the teaching pressures that would be associated with Radcliffe-Brown’s plan, proposed a postponement of the committee meeting due to discuss Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas until Balfour himself could attend. Radcliffe-Brown, for his part, told Myres that if his ideas were dropped there was a real possibility that the three subjects would fall apart completely. Physcial Anthropology would fall under the jurisdiction of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, while Cultural Anthropology would be co-ordinated by the Committee for Colonial Studies or as part of the B.Sc. course. So that Myres could have no misapprehensions as to his own priorities in the matter, Radcliffe-Brown added,

That leaves the question of developments in the subjects of Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology and that is not, of course, directly my concern. My idea was that a separate diploma would have permitted students to get a more thorough knowledge of those subjects than they can at present. With the dropping of the plan for three diplomas it will be up to some one else to formulate a plan for giving prehistoric archaeology the place it deserves in University Studies at Oxford. (JLMP, MSS. 81)

With the future of Balfour’s subject under serious threat, from negligence in his absence as much as anything, Myres wrote to Balfour on 24 January 1939, asking him to reconsider his position and give his blessings to the new scheme for a more specialized diploma.

I think that if the present proposals go through, they will serve to maintain the traditional association of the three subjects; whereas there is a real risk that, as things are, that association may cease, through the superior facilities available in other directions to Physical + Social Anthropology; and that means the disappearance of all hope for an eventual Final School of Anthropology, for which both you + I have been hoping from the first and throughout; and it sets a very hard problem to our successors: how to create an adequate place for Technology and Prehistoric Archaeology, unsupported by the other subjects within the traditional scheme. (ibid)

There is no record of Balfour’s response, if any, to this letter. Little more than two weeks later he died at home in Headington, with the future of anthropology at Oxford as he knew it still hanging in the balance. Radcliffe-Brown’s proposals were postponed until the end of the year, and gradually, over the following months, Myres and Penniman tried to persuade him that their efforts would be better spent improving the standard of the existing diploma while putting careful plans in place for a Final Honour School. The onset of the War put an end to any hopes of a significant increase in funding for anthropology in the near future, and it was not until 1949 that a proposal for a Final Honour School was finally put forward.

Thus, both the beginning and the end of Balfour’s career were marked by particularly intense battles over his position within the University. By the 1930s his style of anthropological study was increasingly at variance with the rising generation of anthropologists who emphasised in-depth regional specialization and focused on social institutions at the expense of technologies and material culture. Balfour always believed that the synthesis of a range of regional knowledge should be the most important goal for anthropologists. He liked to use the analogy of weaving a piece of cloth to explain his understanding of the anthropological endeavour. ‘The work of specialists will necessarily lose half its value if there is a dearth of generalists who will gather together the threads and weave them into a substantial fabric, which shall show the importance of each individual piece of work to the progress of the science as a whole.’ (1904, see PRM ms collections, Henry Balfour papers box 5). In 1937 he used an invitation to give the Frazer Lecture at Oxford as a timely opportunity to elaborate on his opinions. Calling his talk ‘Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research’, Balfour made it obvious that his sympathies lay with the ‘weavers’ or ‘generalists’. Their problems came only because of the inevitable growth of the subject, which meant that it was increasingly ‘unwieldy for adequate handling by the individual’. His tone when discussing specialists was far less sympathetic. Specialists had a ‘narrow field of vision’ which may lead to a lack of ‘perspective and depth’; the ‘hard-bitten’ specialist is likely to be biased, and may chose his subject ‘impulsively’ or on a ‘whim’ (1937: 5).

Not surprisingly, given the debates raging in Oxford at the time, Balfour went on to say that teachers had a responsibility to maintain the proper balance between these two aspects of anthropological research: primary instruction should be as wide as possible so that specialist study could be framed to fit within the developing wider picture. Specialist work could only be properly valued by virtue of its relationship to the general study of humankind, and, conversely, without careful co-ordination and incorporation into a more far-reaching survey, the value of specialist work would be reduced. Balfour placed all the importance on the weaver, who must be skilled, broad-minded and discerning, to avoid incorporating ‘faulty yarns’ (he did not miss the pun on the word ‘yarn’ which he pointed out might easily be ‘tall’), and, conversely, should not reject ‘threads’ simply because they do not fit the pattern.

In ‘laying the warp’, therefore, all sound and relevant ‘threads’ should be collected and accepted conscientiously and without bias, and arranged in sequence according to their relationship to one another; the pattern to be woven into the ‘cloth’ (otherwise, the theory) should, as far as possible, be determined by the set of the ‘warp threads’ which form the foundation of the fabric. The ‘weft’, which interlaces and binds together the threads of the ‘warp’, is, after all, but the ‘thread’ of reasoning, which passes to and fro inductively across the warp, contributing to the pattern and creating the material. (ibid: 9)

It is clear from this quotation that, for Balfour, theorizing took second place to communicating data. Both specialists and generalists, he argued, should know something of the other’s craft, but the latter kind of anthropologist would always be able to weave a broader cloth. Balfour was clearly an anthropologist of the latter type. He travelled all over the world collecting ethnographic data and wrote on many different subjects throughout his life. His scholarly papers – of which he wrote many, although he only published one monograph, on The Evolution of Decorative Art in 1893 – are notable for their geographical and historical range, and the clarity of the information they present.

Note: This text was written during the Relational Museum project but is relevant to the Other Within project as well and has been added for that reason.