Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Photographic evidence used by the Ethnographical Survey of the UK

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Brabrook, the secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science's committee for the ethnographical survey of the UK reported in 1893 that:

In one branch of the anthropometric work, I feel especial interest, that of the collection of photographs, as it carries out a suggestion made by myself to the Glasgow meeting of the [British] Association in 1876, and included in the reference to the Anthropometric Committee of that year. ... I proposed that negatives should be obtained, in full face and also in profile, in each district, of individual adults answering to the description "very pure" in the Committee's schedule of statistics of nationality - that is, a person all whose four grandparents, at least, with parents and himself are from the same district. The Committee resolved on 6th June, 1877, to carry this proposal into effect by obtaining as large a numbere as possible of photographs of persons from different localities, whose descriptions should be, as far as practicable, recorded in the manner laid down in the Anthropometric Instructions. This resolution was referred to a Sub-Committee ... [which] made considerable collections, which are now for the most part in the custody of the Anthropological Institute. In 1881, a separate Committee was appointed by the Association for the purpose, with Mr Park Harrison as Secretary, and continued to be re-appointed until 1885, when it merged in a Committee "for the purpose of defining the racial characteristics of the inhabitants of the British Isles," a mission of which I think the Committee failed to discharge itself, and it accordingly lapsed. In 1878 the Committee appealed (through the "Photographic News") to professional and amateur photographers for aid. The present occasion [the setting up of the Ethnographical Survey of the UK] appears to afford an excellent opportunity for taking up its work, with better prospect of carrying it to a successful conclusion.
... Mr Galton has kindly favoured me with the following practical suggestions as to the working of this branch of our undertaking:- "Make a selection of villages, as representative of already recognised varieties - pure Welsh, Sussex, Yorkshire, Midlands, Norfolk, &c.; take photographs, full and profile (of right side), in all cases with light from right side and above, of at least a certain number of adults (not bearded if possible), and of ages between twenty-two and thirty-five, also of women. ... Measure select dimensions of each of them, according to Anthropological "Notes and Queries." Required at least seventy-five males and seventy-five females of each type, three hundred photographs in all."... I have since had the pleasure of some conversation with Mr. Galton on the question whether it would not be desirable to collect photographs of children. They frequently show marked racial peculiarities, undisguised by the modifications which sometimes arise with the advance of years, and the acquirement of habits that more or less distort or disturb the features, and being assembled together in schools and elsewhere, might be comparatively easy to select and to obtain. When photographs in sufficient number from any particular district had been procured, Mr Galton's composite system might be usefully employed to obtain a general definition of the racial features; as the result of that system is to diminish the effect of individual peculiarities and to reduce a number of persons, each slightly varying, to a common type. Used upon a number of specimens in which the broad features were the same, it would give the necessary prominence to these, and would sink accidental slight differences. [pp.270-273]

In 1898 Section H of the BAAS announced its own plans "to collect, preserve and undertake the systematic registration of photographs on anthropological interest". [Edwards, 2008: 191] Edwards concludes, however, that:

while photography had been seen as integral to the methods of the BAAS Ethnographic Survey, adding evidential weight and demonstrational clarity, in fact very few photographs were forthcoming. Not only was what was asked of photographers and observers becoming too complex to be practicable. [Edwards 2008: 202]

Further Reading

E. W. Brabrook, 1893 'On the Organisation of Local Anthropological Research' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 22 (1893), pp. 262-274

Elizabeth Edwards. 2008. 'Straightforward and Ordered: Amateur Photographic Surveys and Scientific Aspiration, 1885-1914' Photography and Culture (vol. 1 issue 2) November 2008 pp 185-210 Berg.