Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An edited version of the paper given by Frances Larson on 13 February 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is hoped that a full version of the paper will be published.

Abstract: This talk will begin to explore how theoretical frameworks have been put to use by individuals, partly for their own purposes. My focus will be the relationship between A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) and Henry Balfour (1863-1939). Separated by a generation, these two men came to anthropology under very different circumstances. Pitt Rivers began collecting while he was serving as an officer in the army and his scientific achievements were the result of private reading and research. He was the classic mid-Victorian 'gentleman scholar'. Balfour, in contrast, read Natural Sciences at Oxford, specialising in biology and animal morphology. He was a member of Stocking's 'intermediate generation' of anthropologists: university-trained scientists and medics who dominated the discipline at the turn of the twentieth century. For both men, working with objects was central to their development as anthropologists, and when Balfour took over the management of the Pitt Rivers Collection at Oxford University in 1885, as a twenty-two year old graduate, the objects in that collection also became central to their relationship with each other. This talk will try to unpick some of the disagreements between Pitt Rivers and Balfour regarding artefacts in the collection in light of their different methodological and theoretical approaches, and, by extension, their different career paths as anthropologists. In their interactions with each other, material culture became a vehicle for the development of theoretical ideas and the play of personal politics.

The politics of theory at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1885-1900

This paper explores what happens when ideas become closely attached to objects, and when objects become closely attached to people … What was the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1885-1900? Well, it was a big group of things, which, until very recently, had been General Augustus Henry Lane Fox’s private property, representing many years of research, fieldwork, exchanges, purchases. And it was also a new academic department for the ‘science of man’ - this new status was the result of many years of negotiation, for funding, for building work, for staff costs. Although its ownership had been transferred to the University of Oxford, it still belonged, in some emotional way, to General Pitt Rivers - he was very keen that it should be associated with him and his work and his generosity as a patron of the University.

General Pitt Rivers was around 60 years old in the late 1880s, and the donation of his private collection to Oxford University is really the culmination of a series of important publications (Primitive Warfare, On the Evolution of Culture) based on his private collecting work, which have established him as one of the most important anthropologists and archaeologists in the country. He brought collecting to the forefront of the anthropological endeavour, giving them scientific significance. Henry Balfour was then his mid-twenties, an Oxford graduate, he studied natural sciences as an undergraduate, specializing in animal morphology. He had been given a job working on unpacking, cataloguing and arranging General Pitt Rivers’ private collection when it arrived in Oxford, and he really immersed himself in the work and by the late 1880s he had started angling for more recognition, both for the collection and for himself, within the University. Both men were interested in objects and their scholarly reputations were built on their work with objects. And now - for a short period - they were both invested in the same group of objects - the Pitt Rivers Collection in Oxford.

Pitt Rivers argued that man was subject to the laws of nature - his social advancement, his laws, his arts, his technology - that his free will was limited:

Man is not a designer in the sense of an architect, but he is the constructor in the sense of a brickmaker or a bricklayer.

Essentially humans were ‘destitute of all creative power’ and the first technological breakthroughs came because the material world impressed itself upon humans by accident. Pitt Rivers argued that objects ‘cannot intentionally mislead us’, they were relatively durable and, unlike language, they changed relatively slowly over time. This made them a good marker for cultural history. Objects were considered extremely reliable in themselves - they were seen as hard scientific evidence, incontrovertible ‘facts’, unambiguous things that can be moved around, taken out of context, shipped about the world, and still hold truths that would reveal themselves under the scientific gaze. Knowledge was inherent in these things and could be extracted by people who knew how. And yet, the picture as a whole would never be finished, and scientists were left trying to make the best of what they have got. This seems to me to be the perfect situation for the politics of theory, for the ambiguities to be taken up and used within personal political situations. Particularly, as objects were elevated as the source of crucial information, they were particularly valuable intellectually, at the heart of scholarly debates. Pitt Rivers’ work served another purpose, as a kind of self-promotion, because his work helped to elevate museums as key centres for knowledge production, as academic departments really. So, objects generally were important as anthropological data, and the Pitt Rivers Museum was particularly important to General Pitt Rivers, and increasingly important to that young Oxford graduate, Henry Balfour.

As a kind of test case, this talk focuses in on events in 1889-1890. It was about five years since Pitt Rivers had sent his collection to Oxford. The upper gallery had been open to the public about a year, but the lower gallery was still closed to the public because Balfour was still working on arranging the displays. What did this collection mean to Pitt Rivers? It was a personal investment, not only in gathering the objects together, but in thinking about them, using them to change the way people think about ethnographic collecting and as the basis for more detailed arguments regarding the evolution of cultural practices. Then, he gave them to Oxford. Throughout negotiations, it is clear that he did not want it to be subsumed into any existing collections:he wanted to retain power to develop the collection himself, later he wanted to retain personal recognition. He trusted Moseley - in Rolleston’s absence - to take it on, and respected Tylor too. He did not know who Balfour was, but thought he would make a good assistant, a ‘demonstrator’ alongside Tylor’s lectures. However, Moseley had left due to ill health in 1887, two years into the project, leaving Balfour with thousands of objects to unpack and arrange. Balfour was very hard working, methodical, always learning about the collection, and learning on the job.

University funding for the Pitt Rivers Collection was by no means guaranteed. It had been awarded only on a temporary basis, on the understanding that the unpacking and arranging will somehow be ‘finished’, and once the collection was ready and open to the public, the money would not be needed anymore. So, Balfour was left fighting for funding. In 1890, Balfour had to report on progress and make a case for more funding. The collection had been administered by the Anatomy Department, who no longer wanted it, and the head of the anatomy department made a case that it should be given separate provision, with Balfour as curator. Balfour sensed an opportunity for more job security and more financial provision and he demanded to be given a curatorship with the same status as other professors at the University Museum.

It is around this time that Balfour published his first major paper. He had published shorter papers, on the decoration of arrows from the Solomon Islands for instance, but this was much longer and more ambitious. Balfour’s paper was read at the Anthropological Institute in June 1889, and was published the following year in the Journal, according to Pitt Rivers it was 'much modified' for publication. General Pitt Rivers was asked to provide a discussion of Balfour’s paper, and it came up in correspondence between them afterwards.

Read more about Balfour's work with composite bows and his disagreement with Pitt Rivers here.

So, Balfour and Pitt Rivers debated about details of the historical relationships between bow technology, but I actually think that Pitt Rivers over-reacted to what he perceived as a slight on his existing work. Balfour was just saying which kinds of composite bows, in the present day, were more closely related to each other, not arguing for an origin in a particular place. Pitt Rivers took this as Balfour arguing that there is a linear progression, that contradicts his east-west history. He took this as an affront. And, in Pitt Rivers’ discussion, you can see his personal feelings came through quite clearlys, basically saying get off my turf! Balfour was mystified by Pitt River’s attitude. He thought that he had been building on Pitt Rivers legacy, in deference to him and to science, and that Pitt Rivers would welcome this.

Any hopes Pitt Rivers had that Balfour would take the hint and start working on some new area were quickly put to an end. Because the next thing Pitt Rivers received was a letter from Balfour saying that he was planning to publish on the evolution of decorative art basing his work on Pitt Rivers’ collection, this was an area that Pitt Rivers had written about before. Balfour hoped that Pitt Rivers would approve but Pitt Rivers could not give his blessing. He was not amused. He objected to anything at all being published about the Museum or any part of the collection before he had explained its principles, arrangement and history to the University. Pitt Rivers believed that his collection has been ‘kept in the background at Oxford’ too much. Pitt Rivers seemed to be, on the one hand, fearful of losing control of his collection and, at the same time, annoyed that his gift to Oxford was not enjoying a higher profile. Which, Balfour rightly pointed out, was a contradictory position. Clearly, Pitt Rivers was still invested in his collection, albeit as a gift to the University, as a statement of his generosity, his patronage of science and achievements as an anthropologist.

Balfour wrote to the University Vice-Chancellor, Henry Boyd. All the recent negotiations over Balfour’ job were brought to the surface again. Luckily Henry Boyd was known for his tact and diplomacy. Balfour had drafted a defensive letter to the General ‘I had thought, from reading your papers, that you intended the collection to be progressive, that you wanted to extend it’s educational value and develop it, but apparently not’. The VC asked Balfour to come and have ‘a chat’ and persuaded him to tone it down, in the end he wrote a deferential letter saying he would not publish until the General had come to give his lecture, which he did in April. In 1892, Balfour got more job security, given a 7 year contract. and his Evolution of decorative art was published in 1893. Meanwhile, Pitt Rivers seemed to have lost interest in Oxford altogether and turned his attention to his new museum in Farnham. Seven years later, Pitt Rivers continued to patronize Balfour and addressed his correspondence to Tylor instead. Balfour maintained a rather firm but deferential tone in his own correspondence and, while Pitt Rivers was alive, was very deferential in his publications.

This is an interesting moment in the early history of the Museum, because Pitt Rivers was in the process of disentangling himself from his collection, both physically and intellectually and emotionally, while Balfour was trying to assert himself through the collection as a new player in the field of anthropology. So both men were invested in the same group of things. Their academic theories, and their ideas about the wider world, were based on fine-grained study of these things. Objects were central to their professional thinking, and what is interesting about Balfour's 1890 publication on composite bows is that you can see how their academic debates about theory were partly shaped by their personal investment in the collection, by their relationship with each other, and by their careers at the time. When ideas are published they are usually assumed to be more concrete and lasting – because the publication process makes ideas into a physical thing, which endures and can be exchanged and discussed by the wider academic community forever – but the composite bows paper also reveals itself to be the product of fleeting, small-scale interactions and individual people's lives at a particular moment in time, which is, of course, true of all publications, and, for that matter, all things.

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