Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An edited version of the paper given by Ollie Douglas on 6 February 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is hoped that a full version of the paper will be published.

Abstract: In his seminal work, Victorian Anthropology, George W. Stocking made a handful of tantalizing references to the British folklore movement, which at once both reveal and marginalize its role in the seemingly 'top-down' development of nineteenth-century anthropology. Richard M. Dorson’s The British Folklorists took a comparably horizontal approach to the emergence of folkloric thought, placing the so-called ‘savage school’ of anthropological theorists at its heart, and situating it within the wider academy. Despite the density and validity of both these approaches one might equally choose to examine the folklore movement from the 'bottom-up', taking its evidential sources—stories, artefacts, and 'the folk’ themselves—as fundamental. Such an approach will be seen to highlight the ‘material’ character of folklore and enable a collector- and informant-led narrative to emerge; one that concentrates on, rather than overlooks, the materializing processes at the heart of Victorian homeland ethnography.

Upstairs, downstairs: The materialization of Victorian folklore studies

Firstly, in fitting with the broader theme of this series, this paper begins with a brief critique of George Stocking’s rather top-heavy conception of folklore studies. Secondly, it shows how much of the late-nineteenth-century British folklore movement—in particular the 1890s—is best characterized as a materialist discourse and highlights various examples of how its evidence base was rendered artefactual. Finally, it illustrates how the mechanics of this materializing process were inexorably bound up in the complexity of Victorian social hierarchy.

The television programme, Upstairs, Downstairs has become a convenient byword for the class hierarchy which occurred in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Britain. The complex, internally conflicting, and homegrown social order of this period undeniably played a significant role—both at home and abroad—in the theoretical discourses and field practices of the various sub-disciplines of anthropology. The transparency of the upstairs downstairs metaphor is useful here because comparable hierarchies were implicit in various contexts of data-acquisition, discussion, and dissemination.

This stratification arguably played an even more powerful role in folklore studies. Although ostensibly geographically wide-ranging, the discipline nevertheless had a particular homeland focus. Indeed, much of its work was an early example of what Marilyn Strathern has called ‘auto-anthropology’, a problematic context where divisions between studied and studier became blurred. Here, middle class collectors need only call on their working class subordinates to gather evidence. The lower levels of British social structure harboured potential to be both direct subjects of and to participate directly in data acquisition and analysis. It is worth acknowledging that British folklore studies were intimately bound up in the ethnographic survey movement of the 1890s, which focussed largely upon fringe and isolated regions of the UK, where the delineation between homeland and hinterland enquiry was chronically blurred.

The paper proceeds to draw on the broad themes of Stocking’s work, which see the wider anthropological discipline as nascent, polemical, and struggling to carve out a foothold. These themes are equally applicable to folklore studies, the proponents of which strove from the 1840s onwards to establish empirical methodologies and, despite a few prominent squabbles in the 1880s, drew upon increasingly consistent anthropological theory to give their researches structure and legitimacy; here we are talking principally about Edward Burnett Tylor’s influential notion of ‘survivals in culture’, which held that outmoded cultural practices lingered in modern society. The acquisition of folk artefacts became a physical manifestation of ‘survivalism’. This endeavour was set against a backdrop of rhetoric concerning the saving of vanishing forms of traditional knowledge. The ‘materialization’ to which the title of the paper refers was twofold, firstly the very foundation and formalization of the discipline itself and secondly the mechanism by which its evidence base was rendered scientific and acceptable.

In many ways, Stocking’s vision of anthropology is somewhat top-heavy, concentrating as it does upon the intellectual legacy of the big thinkers and synthesizers of the discipline. Indeed, the products of anthropology were clearly drawn from multi-layered social contexts and were dependant on the input and activities of a whole series of participants from numerous levels within this hierarchy. We should actually see the observed themselves as active participants in the creation of anthropological facts, whether they did so deliberately or unwittingly. Attitudes of racial and intellectual superiority identified by Stocking existed in relation to the practices of all lower class persons whether in urban or rural settings; in other words, the workforces of both factories and farms were perceived as ‘folk’ with a lore that was worthy of salvage.

In Stocking’s sweeping analysis of the later nineteenth century the role of folklore becomes increasingly marginal, the subtext of his argument being that systematic German approaches far exceeded and eclipsed any latent materialism or embryonic empiricism within the emergent British folklore movement. However, whilst the broader argument is clear, a quick flick through the index of Victorian Anthropology shows us that he subtly acknowledges the importance of folklore in various ways. Besides acknowledgement of the influence of Tylorian thought on the wider movement, Stocking’s vision of the folklore endeavour is of a discipline promoted by corporate metropolitan bodies and which thrives on the acquisition of facts by social elites, eminent thinkers, and the upper classes. His drama is an entirely upstairs production.

In terms of collecting work in the wider anthropology of this period, Jacob Gruber and James Urry have highlighted the emphasis placed on the importance of collecting ‘facts’. It was thought that amateur enthusiasts could go out and gather these ‘facts’ and experts could then make informed syntheses. This was a problematic way to conduct research. In the folklore context, George Gomme acknowledged the importance of factuality but questioned the availability of intangible heritage, ‘every … item of folklore, every folktale, every tradition, every custom and superstition, has in its origin some definite fact in the history of man; but… the definite fact is not always traceable.’ Artefacts however, were often portable, collectable, and traceable. A degree of materialization was also beginning to shape the recording of performative forms and intangible verbal evidences. The process of copying down narratives and describing customs on paper was seen to render them permanent and collectible, satisfying this need for material facts.

In 1893 George Laurence Gomme and F.A. Milne offered advice on how to best record folklore, suggesting that each example be written on a separate piece of paper with reference to the locality and ‘authority’, whether an informant or published work. Resultant publications were to be not only comprehensive but offer indisputable accounts of numerous ‘items’ of folklore, all treated in the same manner, as separate and collectable facts, whether material culture-based, from printed sources, or freshly collected and written down. The entire process was one of materialization, enabling the ordering of individual ‘items’ of data into logical sequences according to stylistic criteria, structural similarities, or basic comparability.

Text offered another means to materialize sites, Robert Craig Maclagan and others acquiring numerous transcriptions of place legends. Descriptive and photographic approaches were also brought to bear on active cultural performance and ritual. Broadly speaking, the study of folklore in the late Victorian period can be characterized as predominantly proto-scientific; more than ever before it was a process of systematization, which utilized tabulating approaches akin to typology or taxonomy. This involved materialization, whereby verbal evidence, material cultures and this multifarious range of other potential data sources were rendered tangible enough for inclusion.

Material ethnography in this period and in the homeland context of folklore studies was not so much an act as a process, not so much about individual conceptions of custom and belief as it was about a corporate vision of fact, and not so much an exchange between two agents—informant and folklorist—as an extended and multifaceted system that stretched across social boundaries. In 1908 Gomme wrote that the analysis of customs in terms of their ‘separate parts’ enabled folklorists to ‘disentangle’ them from the ‘personal or social strat[a]’ in which they were preserved; as he noted, each item might ‘have become attached to a place, an object, a season, a class of persons, a rule of life, and … preserved by means of this attachment’. However, the very ‘entanglement’ of historical, individual, and social factors from which Gomme aspired to extricate evidence would now be of vital interest. The mechanism by which an item of folklore became ‘entangled’ must be of importance. Not so much that of the original material, or of the reworking of evidence in the academic domain but entanglement as located in the process of collecting, with data being simultaneously tied into the inherited knowledge of the contributing informants and the wider social narrative of the folklore movement.

In terms of the first stage of collection it is important to see folkloric facts, both textual and otherwise, as emerging not simply from the field collector’s pen or camera but out of direct collaboration between fieldworker and informant. On the artefactual side many objects were actually made or acquired to order. Indeed, many late nineteenth-century objects presented as authentic, unadulterated folk material were as likely to be freshly ‘made to order’ as they were to be collected from contexts of active use. The makers were, of course, ‘folk’ in their own right, indicating a further way in which the downstairs and upstairs agents of collection might find themselves interacting, a mix of top-down scholarly requests and bottom-up salaried provision merging in the mutually beneficial process of materialization. In sum, the raw data lay downstairs and its transmission between there and the theorists upstairs was a drawn out and socially-inflected process whether this occurred through replication—as with these commissions—transcription, description, depiction, artefactual collection, or a number of different mechanisms together.

So what about the voices of the ‘folk’, and how they were evidenced in these transactions? Well, despite a clear decision on the part of many informants to remain anonymous, presumably for fear of ridicule, many thousands were clearly contributing to the various surveys and works that were undertaken up and down the country. Folklorists tapped into existing social networks of collection. These flows of information often resulted in the acquisition of numerous examples of the same type of folklore, multiple so-called facts, and it was here in the individual expressions that the folk voice lay. The next step was the amalgamation of these facts, which in turn led to the creation of standardized, normative, and corporate material datasets. These were effectively typologies or taxonomies of folklore.

It is easy to stress the vitality of examining the social networks through which data was acquired and rendered factual but all too easy to forget that these networks were not necessarily flat and equalizing. Although sometimes horizontal, with upstairs conversing with upstairs, they were largely vertical, with materials flowing through a range of connections from lower class folk to lower middle class middlemen, to middle class fieldworkers, and ultimately to upper middle class and upper class collectors and analysts. These scholars structured their results in accordance with a world-view that stemmed entirely from the top down. However, anthropology is not and should not be solely about the activities of the academy. To see it as such would be an abstraction, awkwardly removed from the material and social realities of the world. This is not the case now and, in actual fact, was not the case in the 1890s. The danger in Stocking’s rather top-heavy vision of anthropology is that it portrays a drama which plays out bereft of the quieter informant voice, or the noise of intermediary processes that are vital to the materialization of its datasets. In the folklore movement such processes eased tensions in the fractious relationships between informant and fieldworker, folk and academy, individual and society. In brief, we need to constantly remind ourselves that material anthropology should seek to echo both sides of this equation, the upstairs and the downstairs, and not become too hung up on the importance of the academy.

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