Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Ethnography at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethnography as:

The scientific description of nations or races of men, with their customs, habits, and points of difference

There are very few references to ethnography as a discipline, or concept (other than to report on particular ethnographies published by members of staff, or by donors to the museum) until 1985-6 when for the first time there was a suggestion that that was what was studied by students in the Department, and presumably carried out by members of museum staff:

Plans were drawn up for two new graduate courses: the M.St. (Master of Studies) in Ethnology and Museum Ethnography, and an M.Phil. (Master of Philosophy) in the same field. The first is to be a one-year taught course for graduate students. For those wishing to go on to a second year of graduate research the M.Phil. enables them to concentrate on some special aspect of their first year's work and requires the writing of a thesis under supervision. These new courses will provide opportunities for suitably qualified students to gain instruction in cultural anthropology with special reference to the history and development of Ethnology, as well as the study of art, material culture, and aesthetic anthropology. In addition to the practical study of ethnographic collections in the museum, students can choose the optional subjects ranging from ethnomusicology and museum studies to the ways in which other cultures have been depicted in anthropological films. It is expected that the new courses will begin in Michaelmas Term, 1987. [Museum Annual Report 1985-6]

It will not have escaped your notice that ethnology and anthropology are mentioned as frequently as ethnography in this passage. The sudden recognition for the importance of 'museum ethnography' may reflect the world outside Oxford. For some time the British Museum had had a Department of Ethnography, and the Museum Ethnographers Group (the professional organization for members of museums staff engaged in ethnography in the UK) had been established in 1976.

The name of this new course was consolidated two years later when:

Once again, a good deal of time was devoted to consideration of proposals for the reorganization of Anthropology and the place of the museum in the proposed new School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. [Museum Annual Report 1988-9]

The following year it was reported:

The reorganization of Anthropology was completed in the course of this reporting period, resulting in a newly-formed School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography consisting of the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Institute of Biological Anthropology, and the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. The latter unit supersedes the old Institute of Social Anthropology and the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory. One result of these changes is that the first undergraduate students for the new joint Honours Degree in Archaeology and Anthropology will arrive to begin their studies in Michaelmas 1992. [Museum Annual Report 1989-90]

Ethnography seemed to be integrated into the disciplinary structure of the Museum. The same course is now called [various degrees in] Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. Further information about this  course can be found here.

Earlier, in his work A Hundred Years of Anthropology, Penniman defined ethnography as:

the study of a particular race, people, or area by any or all of the methods of anthropology. [Penniman, 1965: 9]


the intensive study and description of a group of people or of an area by the methods and under the headings which have been described by anthropology, and employs the methods based on such data. [Penniman, 1965: 17]

Although Blackwood saw ethnology as the key discipline in the work of the Museum she also engaged in ethnography. She was responsible, later in life, for giving ‘ethnographic survey’ lectures that gave basic information on cultural groups throughout the world – her lecture notes reveal that she continued to think in terms of classifying people into cultural and racial groups throughout her career, using features such as language, skin colour, physical type, material culture and subsistence traditions to group large sets of people together or set them apart. At one point she explained in her (undated) lectures, that ethnography was concerned with the description of groups of people ‘considered as units, without reference to their possible relations with other units, making, in fact, a kind of map of humanity.’ In fact, her work was fuelled by the comparative method. [Taken from her lecture notes held in the PRM manuscript collections, transcribed by Frances Larson]

Blackwood was also a founding member of the British Ethnography Committee, set up by RAI council in 1948, under chairmanship of Fleure, to consider ‘ways of promoting the ethnographical study of Great Britain in the light of the present state of such studies in this country and abroad.’








Further Reading

T.K. Penniman, 1965. A Hundred Years of Anthropology London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd