Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Preliminary conclusions about purchased English artefacts and sellers to the founding collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum: Is the Pitt Rivers Museum a passive or active purchaser of arterfacts?

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

A. English artefacts purchased for the founding collection

We know very little of the early history of most of the founding collection because the documentation for the majority of the collection is very poor. We therefore only know of eight sources from which Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers acquired English artefacts by purchase, and these form a very small minority of the English artefacts in the founding collection. It is likely that a far higher percentage of the artefacts were actually acquired at second hand from dealers and auction houses as is true for artefacts from other parts of the world. The detailed ways in which Pitt Rivers acquired his collection in general are discussed here, and in more detail in my paper 'Chance and Certitude' in the Journal of the History of Collections [OUP] vol. 18 no. 2 (2006) pp 257-266. Pitt Rivers did find it easier to acquire English artefacts as he often acquired them through his own excavations.

B. English artefacts purchased for the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-2008

We know about far more individuals who sold English artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Although the Museum has always had a limited source of funding for purchases it has used what little resources it has had to acquire artefacts for a number of different reasons. The most common reasons were:

1. To acquire objects deemed to be not represented in the collections already. This approach was particularly taken in the early years of the Museum at Oxford when Balfour was charged with filling in the 'missling links' in Pitt Rivers' series of particular kinds of artefacts. As Pitt Rivers' series were weakened by changes in displays, this became a less common reason though rare or unusual artefacts are still sometimes acquired today by purchase if sufficient funds are available.

2. To acquire a specific artefact for a specific purpose. This is particularly true for more recent purchases for special temporary exhibitions (for example, items made from recycled materials acquired for the large recycling exhibition from 2000-2002, Transformations). Items have also been purchased recently to complement existing collections for new permanent displays in the Museum. The Body Arts display on the Lower Gallery of the Museum was a motivating force for acquiring a large number of contemporary body art items, from England. Not only did this involve the museum in acquiring contemporary ethnographic material but it was hoped that the artefacts, once displayed, would engage with the target audience for the displays (a young English audience).

As discussed elsewhere Museums purchase artefacts in passive or active mode. When artefacts are acquired passively, the Museum effectively sits and waits for an interesting collection to be brought to its attention at a price it can afford to pay. In active mode, the Museum decides what it needs or wants, identifies a source, approaches the source and agrees a price. Perhaps surprisingly given the small budget that the Museum has for purchases, the Pitt Rivers Museum appears to have most often been in active rather than passive mode. Looking through the four part web-pages looking in detail at each relationship between the sellers and the Museum (see here for Part 1), it is clear that the contacts can be loosely categorised as follows:

Sources with whom the Museum definitely had an active relationship - 46

Sources with whom the Museum definitely had a passive relationship - 11

Sources with whom the Museum probably or possibly had an active relationship - 23

Sources with whom the Museum probably or possibly had an passive relationship - 34

Sources with whom the Museum's relationship is totally unclear - 17 [1]

This suggests the museum is more often in active mode, spefically targetting particular artefacts or particular sources of artefacts to have relationships with. In over half of the purchase relationships [nearly 53 per cent] it has had in 120 plus years it has been active in promoting the relationship to benefit its collections.

Was the Museum more active in some decades than others?

The short answer is yes, as can be seen in the chart, the museum was most active in its early years up to the 1940s.

Does the Museum have more active purchase relationships with one sex rather than the other?

There are 18 institutions from which the Museum purchased English artefacts. Of all the individuals from whom items were purchased, 97 were males and 17 were females (in all cases, it is possible to tell from the information that is available). Far more men than women or institutions sold material to the Pitt Rivers Museum. This undoubtedly reflects the dominance of men in the art world at that time (ie who worked as dealers) and also the large number of men who had an amateur or professional interest in archaeology and ethnography, particularly in the period up to the Second World War. The percentage of female vendors is much lower than it is for the donors to the collection as a whole, where 23 per cent of the donors are female, whereas only 13 per cent of vendors are female.

Who promoted active relationships with sellers of English artefacts?

Henry Balfour sitting in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.94

Henry Balfour sitting in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.94

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

The two most active people were probably Henry Balfour and Thomas Kenneth Penniman, their periods of curatorship span the critical period of 1884-1963, the most prolific period for Museum purchases of English artefacts.

Henry Balfour (1863-1939) was the first Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He came from a rich manufacturing family and the private income he inherited allowed him to live a good life on the meagre income the University thought commensurate with the job of Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He lived in a large house on Headington Hill, near Oxford, called Langley Lodge, and in his later years employed a driver and private car (a Rolls Royce) to transport him to and fro the Museum. As his Dictionary of National Biography entry puts it:

He was renowned for his ‘austere dedication’ to his work; left in comfortable financial circumstances after the death of his parents, he supplemented the meagre university staff allowance from his own funds.


His bequests made him one of the Pitt Rivers's major donors: he not only gave an important collection of objects but also bequeathed his library of several thousand books, which formed the founding collection of the Balfour Library.

Thomas Kenneth Penniman

Thomas Kenneth Penniman

He is rumoured to have spent money of his own on making purchases for the Museum. Certainly he purchased and donated large number of artefacts on his numerous vacation trips abroad. During his period of curatorship the Museum had a close relationship with many of the most important ethnographic dealers and sale rooms in the UK. Whether he funded this from his own pocket cannot be documentarily confirmed but he certainly ensured that the museum made many more purchases than was possible after his death. In his early years of curatorship, the Museum ascribed many purchases to the 'Pitt Rivers Fund', it is now not clear what this Fund was, but it is no longer in existence.

Note that the second of his portraits shown here is a portrait purchased by the Museum from Lafayette Ltd in 1939. It was purchased for exhibition in the Museum after Balfour's death in 1939 and cost £12 14 shillings.

Thomas Kenneth Penniman inherited the job from Balfour. He was an American who had been taught by Balfour and settled in England. He was curator from 1939-1963. He was particularly personally interested in musical boxes and street pianos and it is clear that several of the purchases made during his reign as Curator reflect this interest.


[1] Note that the methodology of preparing this is deeply unscientific, the categorisations are based on my knowledge of the collections and the individuals concerned and are therefore a very subjective value judgement.