Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Ethnology at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethnology as:

The science which treats of races and peoples, and of their relations to one another, their distinctive physical and other characteristics, etc.

Ethnology as a term was closely associated with the Pitt Rivers Museum from the nineteenth century until 2001-2. In 1935, at the age of seventy-two, Henry Balfour was accorded the personal title of Professor of Ethnology by the University of Oxford. The Museum was then also known as the 'Department of Ethnology' and, from 1958, the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory'.

T.K. Penniman and Beatrice Blackwood both seem to have believed that the ultimate aim of anthropology (that over-arching discipline which includes subjects as diverse as physical anthropology, social anthropology and material culture studies etc) was to produce comparative analysis, they believed that the core of the discipline was what they called 'ethnology'.

I have taken the view that the aim of all of the anthropological disciplines is ethnology, now and in the past, and that the ultimate aim of all of them, physical anthropology, prehistory, technology, and social anthropology, is to add to our knowledge of ethnology, which helps us to understand peoples as they are and as they have been. [Penniman, 1965: 373]

In one of the first Annual Reports he wrote for the Museum, Penniman stated that:

The Pitt-Rivers Collection aims to show the origin, development, geographical distribution and variation of the principal arts and industries of mankind from the earliest times to the age of mass production, and the collections are used both for teaching these arts and industries and their ethnological significance, and for teaching the General Ethnology of the areas of the world. Our archaeological collections do not conflict with those of the Ashmolean. Archaeology is past Ethnology, and its earlier part up to the invention of agriculture is fittingly taught here, in close connexion with the Department of Geology. [N.B. stress not author's own][Museum Annual Report for the year ending 31 July 1941]

He reiterated this in the Annual Report for 1942-3 when he said, '... this is a Department in which Archaeology and Ethnology are taught'. He returned to the theme again in 1958 when he wrote:

From its inception, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been one of Ethnology and Prehistory, and in its collections, field-work, teaching, and research has always considered the two as the present and past of the same subject. The original gift of General Pitt Rivers balanced the two subjects very evenly, and collections ever since from all parts of the world have maintained that balance. The General’s own field-work and lectures and publications include both, inclining more heavily to Prehistory, and Professor Henry Balfour and the present Curator in their work and teaching and publications have maintained the tradition of dealing with both the past and the present. The Museum series of Occasional Papers on Technology deals both with Ethnology and Prehistory. From 1883, when the collections first came to Oxford, until today, collecting, teaching, and research, including field-work, have included sections and examination papers in both. From our foundation, we were named the Department of Ethnology, because it was understood then and for many years after that Ethnology naturally included Prehistory, and dealt with the past as well as the present, as Tylor’s lectures and his book Anthropology so clearly show. Now, however, when people desire exact designations and like to define provinces of activity, it seemed best to ask the University to translate fact into law, and we are named the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory, with the right to have Demonstrators, who are also Lecturers, appointed in both subjects. At the same time, Mr. Bradford’s title was changed in accordance with the nature of his publications and teaching to that of University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Prehistory. The new titles in no way infringe on the Ashmolean use of the title ‘Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology’, nor on its title ‘Department of Antiquities’. and recognize our very large collections from the earliest periods, a great bulk of which are from outside the Ashmolean range of collections or sphere of teaching. [Museum Annual Report, 1957-8]

Blackwood defined ethnology as:

... the comparative study of all aspects of the life and culture of all the peoples of the earth at all stages of their history, past and present. [Blackwood, 1942: 89]

Her posts too were defined as encompassing ethnology, from the 1920s she worked at the Oxford University Museum [of Natural History] as 'Assistant Demonstrator for Ethnology', and from 1936 as 'University Demonstrator for Ethnology' at the Pitt Rivers Museum (she did not start work on this post until 1938 when she returned from fieldwork).

The last link to ethnology was removed, as these extracts from the Annual Reports for the Museum show:

1989-90 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.
2000-1 Museum staff continue to teach on the University’s undergraduate degrees in Archaeology & Anthropology, Human Sciences, Modern History and Geography; the M.Sc. and M.Phil. degrees in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (formerly Ethnology and Museum Ethnography).

Find out what Beatrice Blackwood thought about Ethnology and Folk-lore here.

Find out Penniman's views on Anthropology as a whole here.

Find out what Balfour thought about Ethnography and Ethnology here.

Further Reading

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