Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Beatrice Blackwood and teaching at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Frances Larson

Beatrice Blackwood 1998.356.1

Beatrice Blackwood 1998.356.1

I have not been able to find out much – if anything – about Blackwood’s teaching practices while working in the Department of Human Anatomy, however many of her lecture notes survive from the 1940s onwards, when she taught at the Pitt Rivers Museum and in the Oxford University Museum lecture theatre. During this period she and Penniman taught as a team. He noted that, 'In general I deal with Archaeology or past Ethnology, what people were like and how they lived, and Miss Blackwood with present Ethnology, what people are like, and how they live now. Each helps to interpret the other.' (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers, box 21, folder 4) Students were taught 'Social Anthropology' by, first R.R. Marett, then A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, and, from 1946, by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (and others).

Unfortunately, a significant proportion of Blackwood’s lecture notes are undated, so it is difficult to build up any clear idea of how her teaching developed over the years. However, the overall impression I get is that the underlying approach and general anthropological lessons did not alter significantly through time. It is clear that Blackwood had to give her students a broad introductory overview of all the main cultural groups in the world, which gave little scope for detailed analysis or nuanced conclusions. One of the courses she gave was called the ‘Survey Course’, which was designed ‘to cover the world in one year’ of lectures. Blackwood explained that her aim was to give a ‘background survey of the main features of people in the world, as a foundation for more detailed studies’. She added that she would only be able to touch on social anthropology lightly and would ‘concentrate mainly on how they live, and how they make use of the resources provided for them by their environment’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 21). Presumably this was because students were taught about other aspects of people’s social life – such as their spiritual beliefs, politics and kinship – elsewhere. These ‘Survey Course’ lectures seem to have been arranged by geographical region.

Another course was called ‘Lands and Peoples’, in which she seems to have themed her sessions differently, since the first lecture considered physical anthropology – eye colour, stature, blood groups and methods of taking measurements – while her second discussed ‘Hunters and Herders’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 22, folder 3).

It used to be thought that societies necessarily went through all the stages, from hunting and gathering, through pastoralism to horticulture – cultivation of a garden – hortus by means of a hand tool, the digging-stick or the hoe – and so to agriculture, cultivation of a field, ager, by means of a plough. We now know that this was not the case. Although the earliest and most primitive form of culture is that dependent on hunting and gathering, the passage of various peoples from that stage to any other has been widely different in different groups …  Another misconception which used to be widely held was that a group’s culture, and especially its food economy, was entirely dependent on its geographical environment. In extreme cases, of course, this is true…But we must not forget that various uses can be made of the environment + there are cases where peoples of very different cultures exist side by side in the same geographical environment, for example the pastoral Masai and the cultivating Kikuyu, both on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Neither does a hard enviornment necessarily lead to a simple form of culture [compares the Eskimo (hard environment and highly developed culture), with Tasmanians (similar environment to England but simplest mode of existence known)]’ (opening statement from ‘Hunters and Herders’ lecture, PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 22, folder 3)

Other lectures in this series (which have not survived as an orderly group, and are spread through different boxes of material, so it is impossible to know how they related to each other or whether they are of a similar date) seem to focus on geographical regions again: Indians of the Northwest Coast; South American Hunters – Tribes of the Gran Chaco; The Eskimo; Nomads of the Central Asian Steppes – The Steppes; Herders & cultivators of East Africa; North Africa and Egypt, and so on. The geographical range is impressive, but it prevented Blackwood from delving into any single area in any depth at all, and many of her lectures were basic and introductory.

She did give slightly more specialized lectures, for example, on New Guinea Art, or the Material Culture of East Africa, but even these sessions were too short to allow much detailed analysis. Time was the limiting factor, and artistic styles or technological practices had to be characterized and glossed over to a large extent. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the general teaching style of the day, her lectures provided little scope for discussion, and one has the impression that she generally read from her notes word for word (they are written out in full, with even supposedly ‘casual’ remarks noted down) in front of a group of students who sat in silence and diligently wrote everything down. Although, she did use lots of slides: her lecture notes are often stored with long typed lists of slides that regularly run onto a second page (her extensive lantern slide collection is kept in the Photograph and Manuscript Collections).

She also ran a series of practicals alongside some of her lecture courses, which were more informal affairs and seem to have been held in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here, she introduces the Lands and Peoples course structure and specifically forbids questions during her lectures, asking students to talk to her during the practicals:

We shall look at pictures of the people and of their country, and examine the things they make and use. The anthropologists will have an opportunity of seeing the things themselves at the practical class on Monday afternoons. The rest of you will, I hope, stay behind after each lecture for half an hour or so to look at them…The value of this course lies mainly in the pictures and in seeing the specimens themselves, so it will not be the same thing at all if you cut the lecture and borrow someone’s notes. The practicals will be quite informal, and questions are welcomed at them. Please do not interrupt the lectures with questions as we have a great deal to get through and they are carefully timed to last just under an hour… (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 22, folder 3)

Reading this introduction, it is clear that Blackwood used objects during her lectures as well as during practical sessions, and, moreover, that material culture was integral to what she was going to say. Some more specialist lectures focused entirely on material culture and may have been held in the Pitt Rivers Museum. For example, a course on the Material Culture of East Africa was designed ‘to illustrate, mainly from specimens in P.R. Museum, the main characteristics of the material culture of the peoples of East Africa’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 25). Despite the fact that her notes are so comprehensive, she does not seem to have written down any reference to the specific objects she brought into the lecture theatre (I think most of her general lectures were given in the Oxford University Museum lecture theatre). Maybe they were left on the desk in front of her and students could come up and study them afterwards, or maybe she made impromptu references to them during the session without referring to her notes.

However, her lecture notes are frequently pinned to a small clump of index cards on which she has listed relevant objects in the Museum itself, giving their location, which presumably she used during the practical sessions or when she decided to lecture in the Pitt Rivers Museum. There are lots of these cards, covering numerous different cultural groups or geographical regions, including, for example, Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Anuak; or Plains Indians; or the Lapps. They give some details about the location of objects in the Court and the Galleries. Here are some that might give an idea of the rough lists she was working from:

Northwest Coast Indians
Carved box & mask. Art case
Chilkat dance apron
Rattles (Autophone case)
Model canoes + real one.
Totem and house poles.
Slatestone pipes (upright pipe case)
Shaman’s head-dresses, skin blanket
Model totem poles + other slatestone carvings. An. Form
Chief’s coffin.
Cradle [rubbed out?]
Copper. (under currency case)
Button blanket (upright currency case)
Box lid set with otter teeth
Box made by steaming (under currency case)
Silver bracelets
Food bowls

Specimens for lecture on W. Africa.
Ashanti, Nigeria, Congo. Saturday Jan 24. 1947
ï�³Bushongo ‘plush’ weaving (Torday’s)
ï�³carved wooden raffia cloth ‘tukula’ boxes, or cups (Torday)
a throwing knife
X carved gourds – also some with pattern burnt on
X hoe used as currency.
Some carved wooden figures.
Ivory figure (from Ivory case)
X wooden stools, carved – head-rests
Ashanti stool (ceremonial)
Masks (one or two. E.J. Jones colln)
X some typical gold-weights (Rattray)
Ebony carving of Mangbetu woman (S.P. Powell colln)
Mats worn behind – Mangbetu (S.P. Powell colln)
Bark cloth beater + specimens of bark cloth

S.American forest tribes. To get out.
Some bead aprons etc
Blow gun, darts quiver*
Spindle with tortoise bone whorl
Types of thread (drawer)
Jaguar bone flute
Some ornaments of teeth
*all quivers rather fragile, probably better leave in case.
Miss Butt’s collection in shed.

S. American Forest Peoples
Baskets: Design & basket case
Pottery & jaguar skull trumpets, Music case. Syrinx
Jaguar bone flageolet, drawer
Cotton & aeta palm string
Woodskin canoe model. Real one.
Model of Arawak house.
Cassava apparatus & bread. Food case
Bead ornaments and aprons.
Feather ornaments in corner.
Sundry ornaments in desk case.
Blow gun, quivers & darts.
Spears (middle of end cases)
Stone implements, desk case.
Get out.

Specimens for lecture on the Eskimo
Stone lamp (small one will do). Cupboard in workshop
Stone cooking pot. (Substitute for pottery case, Court.)
2 dolls showing costume. Doll case in lower gallery. (Labrador)
Sinew-backed bows. Upper Gallery.
1. western Eskimo, Arctic type, wooden, with sinew backing
2. Eastern Eskimo, antler with sinew backing.
Bow made of bone
Sieve made of whale bone, with baleen mesh (Fishing case, L.G.)
Small things on tray on table in cellar.
Bottle made of seal’s foot (below horn case, Court)
Sledge carrying kayaks. Model (ivory case).

There are so many of these cards that one could probably build up a reasonable picture of the displays if one spent a lot of time over it (although they are nearly all undated, and the descriptions of objects are not detailed enough to enable individual identification). Sometimes Blackwood noted down objects that were ‘by my room’, or ‘in workroom cupboard’ or in the ‘drawer under sandals [case]’ or ‘probably too fragile’ and so on. They show that Blackwood’s teaching in the Museum consisted of walks around and amongst the displays along with the study of objects already removed from cases or taken from behind the scenes and, presumably, laid out on tables especially for the students to look at.

One small, but particularly revealing document is a note Blackwood wrote to herself as a reminder of the strengths and weaknesses of a session she ran during the 1950s showing the films she had taken during her 1936-8 research in New Guinea.

Hilary Term 1953 Films on New Guinea and New Britain
Shown without slides, but with Kukukuku specimens on the table. The three rolls take about 45 minutes, with some talk while changing the reels. The other 15 minutes was used in discussing the specimens. But there were rather too many people and it would probably be better to set them out on the tables in the Upper Gallery as usual.
Same 1954 – doubt whether putting them in the Upper Gallery is worth the extra trouble.
1955 – only a few things put out as there were 2 lectures before. Quite enough I think. Useful to have them in the lecture room to talk about while reels are being changed. Slides not used.
1956 same. 1957 same. 1958 same. 1959 same.
(PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 26)

These notes suggest that tables were normally arranged in the Upper Gallery for objects taken out of storage or off display so that the students could examine them. It is impossible to know whether they were handled by anyone other than the Museum staff. It was clearly normal for objects to play a pivotal part in Blackwood’s lectures and teaching sessions in anthropology right through into the 1960s. Another tantalizing set of note cards gives hints about the organization of a practical – or series of practicals – on Melanesia. The cards are disused catalogue cards that have been recycled. On the back, Blackwood has written down a series of headings or labels to use as temporary signposts during a practical class designed to explore the main similarities and differences between Polynesian and Melanesian material culture. On one she has written, ‘Note. In practical Hilary Term 1947 all Mel. things were put one side + all Pol. things the other. ? better to put things of a sort from Mel. + Pol. side by side?’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 15)

Each card has short statement, for example, ‘Fish-hooks Common to both’, ‘Loom only in Santa Cruz. Came from Indonesia perhaps via the Caroline Is in Micronesia’, ‘Polynesia No Pottery’, ‘Melanesia tools curved section (round or elliptical)’, ‘For Melanesia pottery – see case in court. Note. No pottery in Polynesia’, ‘Typical Fijian ornament + sign of rank’, ‘Bark cloth beaters common to both’, ‘Melanesian bark cloth curvilinear design + figures’, ‘Melanesian objects used as currency + valuables’, ‘Polynesia No objects used as currency’, ‘ ‘Betel-chewing’ (really areca-nut + betel pepper + lime) characteristic of Melanesia but not of Polynesia. Came from Indonesia’, ‘Melanesian wood work curvilinear designs + animal + human figures w. much carving on all kinds of wooden objects. See food bowls in case.’ ‘Melanesian baskets of coconut leaves for rough use (many more elaborate forms in Court cases’ ‘Tiki caracteristic New Zealand ornament.’ ‘Shell tools common to both. Very characteristic of atolls. Common in Micronesia’. Some simply have the name of the place ‘Admiralty Islands’, ‘New Ireland’, ‘New Britain’. They must have been used to label objects that were laid out on tables for the students.

Some of the cards also directed the students to other similar objects located in various parts of the Museum with descriptions and arrows. ‘Micronesia see also desk case + screen on east end of this gallery ↓ ←’, ‘Polynesia except New Zealand see also desk case + screen at east end of this gallery ↓ ←’, ‘New Zealand see also clubs on wall near entrance to this gallery →’, ‘Polynesia New Zealand see also desk case + screens at east end of this gallery ↓←’, ‘Polynesia see also spears in north-east corner ← & clubs → on wall near top of stairs, entrance to this gallery →’ (BB box 15) From the displays mentioned it is clear that these cards were used in the Upper Gallery, which supports the theory that this is where objects were temporarily arranged for practical sessions. Once the students had familiarized themselves with the objects on the tables and compared different cultural traditions, they were encouraged to continue their analysis and broaden their understanding of the different styles and methods of manufacture by exploring the Museum displays.

As mentioned above (under ‘Race Relations’ and ‘Cultures in Transition’), Blackwood often focused on comparing cultural and geographical groups with a view to determining the best criteria for defining different cultural units. Her practical session on Polynesia and Melanesia was designed to explore the fundamental differences and similarities between the two regions in terms of their material culture. Other criteria might have been used, in fact she identified six methods for studying ‘culture movements’, all of which had weaknesses. Archaeological evidence was limited by the fact that there might have been a gap between past and present practices; linguistic evidence suffered because languages were modified so quickly and easily; similar mythologies indicated only a very general relationship at best and any parallels could always be due to ‘convergence’; similar material culture traditions might have appeared following independent invention rather than representing a historical link, and, conversely, if there was none in common it did not necessarily follow that there was no relationship; and Wissler’s idea of culture complexes relied on a problematic concept of culture as a ‘compact mass…moving on its own momentum’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 26). The final option was to study the ‘peopling of small areas and distribution of single or a few individually outstanding elements’, but this meant sacrificing the bigger picture and any hope for creating a coherent whole. However, in one of her sets of notes, Blackwood concluded that this last option might provide the most promising way forward (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 27).

On the study of material culture as a window on the ‘movement of peoples and cultures’, Blackwood was, on the whole, cautiously optimistic. Here, she was indirectly evaluating much of Henry Balfour’s work, since he had made a career of analyzing historical culture movements through the detailed study of material culture. Blackwood was cautious because she was fully aware that similar material culture traditions could be due to independent invention in different geographical regions. Furthermore, she warned her students that just because there was no evidence for a particular type of material culture did not mean that it was not present, just that it had not been reported. Lastly, she clarified that there was a difference between the movements of peoples and the dissemination of objects or customs, and she mentioned as an example the spread of tobacco through New Guinea (studied by Haddon) which had occurred without any associated human migration. On the other hand, she acknowledged that where there were a number of unusual traits found in a continuous, or nearly continuous area, this was ‘good presumptive evidence’ (the notion of a culture-complex is creeping in here).

But where there are marked similarities in a number of traits, both material and non-material, there is some ground for theorising. This method has been used by the more recent workers, e.g. Speiser, Balfour, Haddon, and seems the most promising. But much more must be known about different groups of people individually before the can be satisfactorily combined to make a foundation for a theory. (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 24)

She clearly admired the work of Balfour, and, even within its limitations, marked his studies out as some of the best and most reliable of their kind. He and Haddon had mastered the art of working on the distribution of ‘individually outstanding objects…as a basis for theorising as to origins and spreads’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 26). Her opinion that this kind of work should be supported by a much more detailed and nuanced ethnography of the specific peoples under discussion is not surprising given her own fieldwork experiences, especially in New Guinea where she constantly confronted the complexities of social groups and their traditions. She concluded that the best approach was, ‘a careful examination of technical details of material culture combined with evidence from social + religious customs + traditions where any.’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 24).

My general impression is that Blackwood was enthusiastic about this kind of research: that is, taking a much smaller geographical region than, for example, Balfour ever had, and exploring the similarities and differences between local groups in much more detail. She was interested in cross-cultural influences and how particular traditions had come about, and she believed that anthropology should still aim for a broader view on the human condition, but she was reluctant to gloss over the intricacies of specific social practices or simplify the idea of a cultural group. She admired Haddon’s work on the history and diversity of New Guinea, in which he had focused specifically on canoes – ‘pertinent in Oceania where all travel must be by sea’ – art traditions and smoking practices (BB box 26). She mentioned in one of her other lectures that it ‘would be a good study to compare the life of these forest people of South America with that of the inhabitants of the tropical forests of Africa, noting where the similarities are due to similarity of environment, and trying to find reasons for differences. Something of the sort has been done by Daryll Forde in chapters IX and X of ‘Habitat, Economy and Society’. The comparison might well be carried into further detail.’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 26).

Blackwood’s interest in analyzing specific cross-cultural currents in more detail stretched to studying the impact of European contact. She mentioned the benefits of smaller scale comparative studies, looking at, for example, the impact of white colonization on the communities of British Columbia and the American Northwest Coast (as mentioned above in ‘Cultures in Transition’). She was fully aware that cross-cultural influences ran in both directions. In one of her lectures she listed the ‘principal American Indian contributions to European material culture’ under the headings foods, drugs/narcotics/flavourings, fibres and textiles, transportation, games, rubber, and so on (BB box 26). She wrote brief notes on the ‘Effects of white contact’, through government, missionaries and trade, on the communities she had visited in New Guinea. She recorded that steel knives, hatchets and adzes had entirely replaced stone axes and adzes, which were now ‘used to sharpen knives on, or as weights or hammers for cracking nuts, or left lying around’. European cloth laplaps had replaced grass aprons (although some older men in the mountains had not altered their attire); bottles were sometimes used for storing coconut oil or magical substances; there were a few hurricane lanterns, even if they rarely had any kerosene; those who had worked on plantations had boxes and bowls; houses were built with nails and hinges bought at the Chinese store; a few men had European razors; tobacco was ubiquitous now, and European pigs were greatly prized, especially as they could not be bred on the islands yet.

Notes she made in Andarora included information of a similar kind, although this time focussing on how people had adapted and utilized European materials for their own purposes:

Adaptations of new materials Andarora’
(1) Plane iron hafted like stone adze head
(2) Wire twisted round neck like cane necklet
(3) Beads put between shells or teeth instead of seed or cassowary shafts
(4) Bits of broken plate etc pierced + worn as pendants in same way as shell
(5) Tins instead of bamboos for holding lime
(6) Bits of blanket gathered on top like a [yuturre] + worn as such + as barkcloths
(7) spokes of any old umbrella sharpened to make prickers instead of bone ones
(PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 11)

In a paper read to the Oxford Studies Association in 1944, titled ‘What is Anthropology and why study it?’ Blackwood asserted that one of the key things anthropologists were interested in was the arts and industries of mankind ‘from the earliest times to the age of mass production’. She explained the different contexts in which studying material culture could be useful. Firstly, it could ‘be made to throw much light on the contacts, and sometimes the movements, of groups who have no written history, especially where archaeology fails us, although such evidence must be used with caution’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 21). However, it could also be used to try and encourage a ‘primitive people to make some adjustment in their lives which has become inevitable or may be to their advantage’. For example, a tool could be introduced from another group, which was only a little more complicated that the local tools, in the hope that it would be adopted more willingly than European tools. Material culture studies could thus aid communities in transition under colonial rule. Here, Blackwood is outlining a practical, administrative application for studying material culture, which is interesting because she is generally silent on the ethics of colonialism. She lectured at the Oxford University Summer School of Colonial Administration from the late 1930s onwards (see 1939 entry above), but it is difficult to gauge her opinions with regard to anthropology’s role as an administrative tool.

In this particular lecture, she went on to mention that studying material culture was useful while working in the field, as a way of getting people talking about what they were doing and why. She added that working on material culture could shed light on how things were made and used in the past, and here she used as an example her own work amongst the Kukukuku which could illuminated ‘the Stone Age’. Finally, she stated that work on objects more generally linked in with research work into primitive art.

In the same lecture, Blackwood clarified her use of the term ‘primitive’, explaining that it should not be taken to mean ‘simple’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘early’ or ‘immature’. ‘Actually, as used by the anthropologist, ‘primitive’ is merely a convenient blanket term to include all forms of culture other than those of the great European and Oriental civilizations and their offshoots.’ She went on to explain that the cultures that were bracketed together as ‘primitive’ are not all ‘on the same level’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 21). She concluded by stating that,

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. (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 21)

By the mid-1940s, when this talk was given, material culture had definitely become a focus for Blackwood, although it is hard to say whether this was ‘through limitations of time, training, ability and inclination’, or due to other constraints. Her career at the Pitt Rivers Museum was shaped by her genuine interest in material culture, which infused her teaching and research work, however it is more difficult to say when this interest took shape and why. Her early training in anatomy and the archaeological fieldwork she had undertaken regularly since her days as a Diploma student must have provided her with expert skills for handling, analyzing and recording objects. Such work was the mainstay of her career in the Human Anatomy Department, where she catalogued hundreds of human crania. Her later anthropological field trips, especially those in Melanesia, gave her the opportunity to study in close detail how things were made and used, and she had collected and documented thousands of objects by the time she returned to Oxford from New Guinea in 1938. This close work with objects continued as she set about systematizing and creating the card catalogues at the Pitt Rivers Museum during the Second World War, work that continued right up until her death.

Although Blackwood’s career was centred on the study of objects and museum collections, she does not seem to have shared Balfour’s single-minded passion for ethnographic things. Her interests were more wide-ranging, as her field research shows: she worked in North America in the 1920s as a physical anthropologist; her research in the northern Solomon Islands centred on sexual practices, marriage, child-birth and children; and during her later fieldwork in New Guinea she seems to have been frustrated by her restrictions as a collector and longed to launch into more in-depth social anthropology. At the same time as wanting to explore a broader social anthropology, she was upset by the fact that she was no longer able to work in the Anatomy Department and retained her interests in biological analysis, for example, when studying the Arawe skulls.

Her reliance on the Balfour’s support during the second half of the 1930s, following Thomson’s death and the changes taking place in the Anatomy Department, left her little choice but to focus on ethnographic collecting and material culture while in New Guinea in the late 1930s. When she arrived back in Oxford, Balfour’s absence and then his death left her with no real mentor within the University Museum, meanwhile the War put an end to any hopes of returning to the field in the near future. She always considered herself lucky to have had a University position to come back to at this stage (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 34, letter to Herbert Pinney, 25 November 1955), but as it was she never returned to the field for intensive work. She and Penniman went on to preside over the Pitt Rivers for the next twenty years, and she was still working there in the 1970s. The fact that she found herself working, teaching and studying in a Museum environment during the post-war years was partly a natural extension of her early training as an anatomist and anthropologist, and partly the consequence of outside forces that she was in no position to argue with. She was a firm believer in the value of studying objects, and she argued vociferously against people like Radcliffe-Brown who underestimated and denigrated their importance, but I think she would have relished the opportunity to return to the field after the War and balance her interest in material things with a more in-depth study of cultures ‘in the round’ (PRM manuscript collections Beatrice Blackwood papers box 21, quoted above).

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.