Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Rethinking Pitt-Rivers:

Analysing the Activities of a Nineteenth-Century Collector

Jeremy Coote,
Joint Head of Collections, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

1998.271.5.1 Pitt Rivers and family

1998.271.5.1 Pitt Rivers and family

The ESRC-funded projects, the 'Relational Museum' and 'Other Within', both examined aspects of the Pitt Rivers collection at Oxford in detail. In 2009 the Pitt Rivers Museum announced that the Leverhulme Trust had agreed to fund a three-year project to examine Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers' second collection in more detail and rethink the totality of his collections.

At the mention of the name ‘Pitt-Rivers’, many will think immediately of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and its uniquely dense and atmospheric displays, famously organized by type and function rather than geographical or cultural origin. The Museum was founded by the University in 1884 to house a collection of 20,000 ethnographic, archaeological, and antiquarian artefacts given to it by General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) and continues to bear his name. What many of the Museum’s visitors do not know, however, is that Pitt-Rivers carried on collecting, so that by the time of his death in 1900 he had acquired a further 10,000 artefacts, housed in the main in his private Pitt-Rivers Museum in Farnham, Dorset. This collection was dispersed in a series of sales from the 1950s, so that the artefacts are now scattered in private and public collections around the world. Fortunately, however, Pitt-Rivers’s catalogues for his second collection survive in the form of nine manuscript volumes containing detailed descriptions of every item he acquired between the early 1880s and his death in 1900. Each entry contains details of the object’s acquisition along with a written description and a hand-drawn and coloured illustration.

During a previous project funded by The Leverhulme Trust in 1995–8, staff at the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum created a database for the Museum’s founding collection. This resulted in the records for the 20,000 objects Pitt-Rivers had given to the University in 1884 being made available to the research community and the wider public and led to a decade of research into the founding collection and the early history of the Museum. Over time, however, it has become apparent that in failing to take account of Pitt-Rivers’s later collecting activities, the earlier project and the subsequent focus on the Museum’s founding collection had provided only a partial picture of Pitt-Rivers’s work. This new project, therefore, will explore Pitt-Rivers’s collecting activities as a whole, combining the records for Pitt-Rivers’s first, ‘Oxford’ collection with those for his second, ‘Farnham’ collection. As part of the project, the latter will be digitized by our colleagues at the Cambridge University Library, where they are held, and made available online, along with a fully searchable illustrated database for all Pitt-Rivers’s collections. The database will be used to analyse statistically the entire collection to identify patterns and changes in Pitt-Rivers’s collecting behaviour over time.

It is not possible to understand the practice or theory of anthropology or archaeology in the second half of the nineteenth century without paying due attention to the life and work of Pitt-Rivers. More importantly for the present project, it is impossible to understand the history of collecting and the development of museums in the period without taking account of Pitt-Rivers’s activities and ideas. Arguably, Pitt-Rivers was the most significant ethnographic, archaeological, and antiquarian collector in the British Isles during the second half of the nineteenth century. This project will, for the first time, allow the whole range of his collections to be seen in focus. This will provide not only a fuller understanding of him and his work, but also a fuller understanding of the development of anthropology and archaeology during the period.

The database and the statistical analyses will be at the heart of a project website that will also provide access to original and reprinted articles, progress reports, and links to related resources. In addition to creating the website, the project team—consisting of Jeremy Coote (Joint Head of Collections) and Alison Petch (Project Researcher) of the Pitt Rivers Museum and Chris Gosden of the Institute of Archaeology (all University of Oxford)—will publicly disseminate the research findings through a workshop, a conference and related edited volume, academic papers, and a monograph providing a narrative biography of Pitt-Rivers’s life as a collector. The project monograph will provide a landmark account of Pitt-Rivers’s life and achievements but also serve as a reminder to the wider academic community of the contributions made by Pitt-Rivers (and his fellow amateurs) to the intellectual development of two major academic disciplines in the nineteenth century.

Jeremy and Chris were awarded a Research Project Grant by The Leverhulme Trust in March 2009, providing £248,350 over three years.

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