Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers, Anthropology and Ethnology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Pitt Rivers did write some passing references, and more detailed statements, about what he believed ethnology and anthropology to be about. See also Pitt Rivers letter about these issues to Acland in 1882 here.


... that the existing races, in their respective stages of progression, may be taken as the bona fide representatives of the races of antiquity; and marvellous as it may appear to us in these days of rapid progress, their habits and arts, even to the form of their rudest weapons, have continued in many cases, with but slight modifications, unchanged through countless ages, and from periods long prior to the commencement of history. They thus afford us living illustrations of the social customs, the forms of government, laws, and warlike practices, which belonged to the ancient races from which they remotely sprung, whose implements, resembling, with but little difference, their own, are now found low down in the soil, in situations, and under circumstances in which, alone, they would convey but little evidence to the antiquary, but which, when the investigations of the antiquary are interpreted by those of the ethnologist, are teeming with interesting revelations respecting the past history of our race, and which, in the hands of the anthropologist, in whose science that of antiquity and ethnology are combined with physiology and geology, is no doubt destined to throw a flood of light, if not eventually, in a great measure, to clear up the mystery which now hangs over everything connected with the origin of mankind.’ [‘Primitive Warfare I - III: Lectures delivered at the RUSI’ [1] June 28 1867 ‘Primitive Warfare: Illustrated by specimens from the Museum of the Institution’ p. 8]


Evolution and development are terms which, it is now beginning to be admitted, are as applicable to the progress of humanity as to all other mundane affairs. Anthropology, according to the more usual acceptation of the term, deals with the whole history of human development, and may be divided into two main branches. The first relates to the constitution of man, in which we have to do with man as a member of the animal kingdom, his mental and physical faculties and peculiarities, the varieties of race, the influence of heredity, and so forth. The second division may be classed under the head of culture, in which we deal with a new order of things, the origin of which was coeval with the first appearance of man upon the earth, no other animal being capable of self culture in the proper sense of the term. Up to this point the development of species has gone on in accordance with the laws of procreation and natural selection. Man being the last product of this order of things, becomes capable by means of his intellect of modifying external nature to his wants, and from henceforth we have to concern ourselves with a series of developments produced by art.
It is the province of anthropology to trace back the sequence of these developments to their sources. In the more restricted sense of the term anthropology, it appears to be applied by some to the first only of these two divisions of the subject, which the second, or that which I here term culture, has been recognised under the appellation of sociology or social science. It matters little which term is employed, provided we keep the two ideas distinct in our minds. [‘Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 ... Parts I and II’ London, 1874 / updated 1879 pp. xi-xii]


In inquiries of this nature it is always necessary to guard against the tendency to form theories in the first instance, and go in search of evidence in support of them afterwards. On the other hand, in dealing with so vast a subject as Anthropology, including all art, all culture, and all races of mankind, it is next to impossible to adhere strictly to the opposite of this, and collect the data first, to the exclusion of all idea of the purpose they are to be put to in the sequel, because all is fish that comes into the anthropological basket, and no such basket could possibly be big enough to contain a millionth part of the materials necessary for conducting an inquiry on this principle. Some guide is absolutely necessary to the student in selecting his facts. The course which I have pursued, in regard to the material arts, is to endeavour to establish a sequence of ideas. When the links of connexion are found close together, then the sequence may be considered to be established. When they occur only at a distance, then they are brought together with such qualifications as the nature of the case demands.’ [‘Early modes of navigation’ Joural of the Anthropological Institute vol. iv (1875) pp. 399-435 read at Anthropological Institute 22.12.1874 and reprinted in 'Evolution of Culture' 1906: 186]


... The term ethnology has been used in this case for convenience, because the object of my collection being new, there is no recognized name for it. But it is in no sense ethnological. Ethnology as a branch of anthropology relates to the study of races. The object of my museum is not racial. It is a museum of primitive arts. It exhibits by means of selected specimens the development from rude beginnings of certain arts, such as tools, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, clothing, weaving, horse-furniture, agricultural implements, personal ornaments, ship-building, ornamentation etc, and as such I consider it has more affinity to the collections of the Science and Art Department ... than to the British Museum. For although it includes some specimens of primitive arts which are found in ethnographical museums, it is also largely made up of more modern examples of the same arts, which are necessary to complete the several series, and of models and survivals which could not enter into the British Museum collections without entirely subverting their ethnographical arrangement, and depriving both the interest which they now possess by reason of the entirely different objects for which they have collected and arranged. ...” [Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Pitt Rivers papers: P137 Daily News clipping dated on back 1.8.1881, letter from Pitt Rivers to Editor]


[Ethnology was the discipline which] ‘was to enable us to appreciate the social and material condition of the aborigines of our country by a comparison of their relics with the arts of modern savages’ [‘Inaugural Address at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institution held at Salisbury’: Archaeological Journal 1887 44:: 271]

1892 [second edition of Notes and Queries, Pitt-Rivers wrote parts of this publication and must presumably have agreed, with other committee members, the introductory bits of it?


Anthropology may be defined as the natural history of man. It is divided into two main divisions, namely, ANTHROPOGRAPHY and ETHNOGRAPHY. The former treats of man and the varieties of the human family from a purely animal point of view, that is, from a structural and functional aspect; while the latter deals with him as a social and intellectual being, and includes inquiries as to his manners, customs, institutions, history, traditions, languages, religion, intellectual aptitudes, industries, arts, &c.

Note that the boldened words in the quotations above were not stressed in the originals.

(I could not find similar references to ethnography (but this does not mean that they did not exist)

To find out more about Pitt Rivers and his collections go to here.