Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

This is a short edited version of the paper Sarah Byrne intended to give on 6 March 2009.

Re-thinking the relationship between archaeology, anthropology and museums. Are Victorian perspectives valid today?

This seminar will explore some of the perspectives and ideologies governing the relationship between anthropology, archaeology and curation of museums in Victorian times. The first half of the seminar examines Alfred Court Haddon’s (1855-1939) perspectives on collecting, material culture, archaeology, anthropology and how these influenced him in his role as Advisory Curator at the Horniman Museum, London (1902-1915). I will highlight how Haddon’s extended relationships were imperative in his transformation of the museum. In the second half of this seminar, I will assess whether Haddon’s perspectives and practices, many of which were typical of the era, illuminate or are relevant to current research concerns today. In particular, I will pay attention to the more inclusive aspects of Haddon’s type of museum anthropology, focusing on the relationship between anthropology and archaeology and that between ‘experts’ and ‘amateurs’.

Whilst the current research climate in the social sciences is increasingly characterised by interdisciplinary approaches, expressing and conceiving of the synthesis between disciplines is often problematic and challenging. Although the close integration between archaeology and anthropology in Victorian times was largely driven by a misguided social evolutionary paradigm, not all perspectives are outdated and much about how the disciplines were posited and perceived in relation to each other can still contribute to how we view or practice the disciplines today.

The Victorian period has been widely regarded as the era in which the human and natural sciences became professionalised, but only recently has more attention been paid to the fact that ‘amateurs’ played an important role in the furthering of Victorian anthropology and in particular the accumulation of museum collections (e.g. Gosden and Larson 2007). One of the most pressing issues today that concerns anthropologists, archaeologists and museum professionals alike is the need to be more inclusive. The involvement of communities in the study, interpretation and presentation of their heritage represents a new stage of renegotiation between ‘experts’ and ‘amateurs’. I will consider whether the inclusive agendas within Victorian anthropology offer any insights into how wider participation can be encouraged today. I will focus on a number of recent case studies that have made an explicit effort to renegotiate the relationship between ‘experts’ and ‘amateurs’.