Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An edited version of the paper given by Chris Wingfield on at the final seminar in the series on Victorian Anthropology on 13 March 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Abstract: This paper will attempt to conclude the series and summarize some of the outcomes of the Other Within research project. It will draw attention to the Pitt Rivers Museum as an institution with a Victorian foundation and suggest that it may be understood as a sort of 'homing device'. The paper will explore the way in which the museum's treatment of objects reinforces certain notions of otherness and creates particular kinds of selves. Finally the paper will consider how we deal with the Victorian foundation of the museum today, and the ways in which this continues to impact the institution and the ways in which people and objects relate there.

Back to the Future? Locating and Re-locating England

1932.86.1 Reproduction in brass of a Maori cleaver made for Joseph Banks cast by Eleanor Giles

1932.86.1 Reproduction in brass of a Maori cleaver made for Joseph Banks cast by Eleanor Giles



This paper will attempt to conclude the series and summarize some of the outcomes of the Other Within research project. It will draw attention to the Pitt Rivers Museum as an institution with a Victorian foundation and suggest that it may be understood as a sort of 'homing device'. The paper will explore the way in which the museum's treatment of objects reinforces certain notions of otherness and creates particular kinds of selves. Finally the paper will consider how we deal with the Victorian foundation of the museum today, and the ways in which this continues to impact the institution and the ways in which people and objects relate there.

I should probably explain the title of my paper and particularly my choice of title, taken as many of you probably realize from 1980s popular culture. In the first of the Back to the Future trilogy, Marty McFly travels back to 1955, the year he was conceived, in a car converted into a time machine by Doc Brown, a mad scientist inventor. His arrival in the past disrupts his parent’s courtship, and his own existence in the future starts to be cast into doubt. Marty has to get his parents to fall in love again, before securing his own return to 1985. However on his return, he finds his family an improved version of the one he left at the beginning of the film as a consequence of his foray into the past. The film ends with Doc arriving in his time machine having visited the future, where he insists there are more problems that need to be solved.

Despite the fact that the new Pitt Rivers Museum Research Centre is a sparkling new building, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the seminar room has the time traveling potential of Doc’s plutonium-powered DeLorean car. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the seminars over the last seven weeks have allowed us to revisit aspects of the past, through a consideration of the traces left by that past that exist in the present. The presenters have pieced together these traces and tried to make sense of them through imaginative reconstructions. There may even have been moments when we have encountered aspects of Victorian Anthropology which seemed to shed light on why things have turned out the way they are in the present; just as Marty encountering his parents in their youth came to understand some of the family dynamics with which he had grown up. Hilde Nielssen in week two reflected at the end of her paper on the way in which the missionary imaginings of Madagascan society continue to impact on the troubled political events of contemporary Madagascar. Ollie Douglas in week three spoke about the ways in which tensions emerged in Victorian Folklore between local collectors and metropolitan theorists, and something of this tension exists in the separation of Folklore and Anthropology today. Katherine Cooper spoke about the way in which constructions of Swiss identity built upon and were influenced by the discoveries of Lake Villages in the nineteenth century, and also mentioned how the ongoing archaeological interpretation of lake villages relates to the interpretative frameworks adopted in the nineteenth century.

There is a danger in this line of argument. In 1931 Herbert Butterfield pointed to the problems of what he called the Whig interpretation of history – the tendency to seek the origins of features of the present in the past and to shape a narrative which shows the incremental development or improvement of institutions towards a present form that is politically amenable. Whig history implied a direction to the past, and by implication to the future. Because the British state was said to have developed towards constitutional democracy, so it seemed should future development take the same form. E.A. Freeman, a Victorian historian of somewhat Whig persuasion, famously suggested that ‘History is past politics, and politics is present history’. In anthropology, at around the time Butterfield was writing, Malinowski developed the notion of the charter myth, which suggested that people told myths which justified and legitimated their position in the present. The response of many twentieth century professional historians to the ‘presentist’ concerns of Whig history was to concentrate on writing ‘historicist’ accounts that sought to understand the past on its own terms.

However, many disciplinary histories of the kind found in introductory textbooks as well as ‘history of the discipline’ courses taken by undergraduates are precisely this kind of Whiggish history. Furthermore they are frequently a charter myth for the way in which the person writing or teaching them imagines that the discipline should now be. Alison Petch began her paper in the first week of the series with the notion of fieldwork as ‘the central ritual of the tribe of anthropologists’, but it seems that this tribe also had a charter myth which it was important to impart to new initiates. Before there was fieldwork there was evolutionism, diffusionism and ‘conjectural history’. Then Malinowski, the anthropologist as hero, returned from the wilds of Melanesia with a new ritual that gave a new purpose to the tribe.

George Stocking in writing about Victorian Anthropology, and the history of Anthropology more generally has been keenly aware of the dangers of disciplinary histories and Whig interpretations. He wrote against the ‘presentism’ of many of these and positioned his writing as ‘historicist’ in that it set about understanding the past through its own materials rather than seeking the genealogies of particular anthropological theories. Nevertheless the past is never entirely over. It presses in upon us and shapes our lives. Very frequently decisions are made in relation to the past and justified in terms of that past. The first online response to an article in the Times Higher last year on ‘The Great Divide’ between social and evolutionary anthropologists immediately related this to historical events mentioning the names of Boas, Malinowksi and Radcliffe-Brown. In week five Emma Cohen related some of the contemporary concerns of evolutionary and cognitive anthropologists to that of E.B. Tylor, another foundational figure in the discipline. An editorial in Anthropology Today by Keith Hart and Horacio Ortiz, also at the end of last year, spoke of mending ‘the rupture between history and anthropology that launched the modern discipline’. Edward Said has written that:

Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions – about influence, about blame and judgement, about present actualities and future priorities.

Marty’s interventions in the past in the Back to the Future films were intimately tied to his own present: the future to which he returned. Engaging with the past in a seminar series such as this, while it may not make us begin to disappear as it did in the film, may certainly affect our relations to aspects of the past that survive in the present and affect our future actions. In particular I hope that this series has allowed us to see Victorian Anthropologists as fully rounded figures with a diversity of perspectives and attitudes. The seminar series has included papers that have dealt with Folklore, Natural Sciences, Archaeology, and Missionaries, all sources of otherness against which anthropologists have defined themselves and their disciplinary identities in the twentieth century. Michel de Certeau has written of anthropology and history as heterologies – studies or discourses on the other, and just as the work of anthropology frequently involves making the Other less Other through rounded descriptions, so it is hoped that these seminars have made Victorian Anthropologists less Other by situating them in relation to their world and its concerns. If that has not always been achieved in this series, it certainly is achieved in Stocking’s book Victorian Anthropology from which this series has taken its title. The intention is not to resurrect Victorian Anthropology as a golden age, or charter myth for a set of agendas in the present. Rather the intention is the breach the seeming gulf in the historical record, erected by the self-conscious break with a disciplinary past by Social Anthropologists in the mid-twentieth century. In the process it should be possible to access a new set of resources, or perhaps a forgotten branch of the family, which may offer an expanded series of options for re-thinking our roles and identities in the present and future.

While traveling into archives and the dusty corners of libraries may enliven forgotten arguments and make it possible to rethink the concerns of our disciplinary and biological ancestors, and seminar presentations create opportunities to re-imagine these, there are another set of less self-conscious ways in which we engage with the past. Simply by existing in certain kinds of worlds we are brought daily into contact with a landscape and material environment shaped by the concerns of the past. The Pitt Rivers Museum is a case in point. The museum as a place and physical space exists. The collections of objects are present there along with cases to display them. There are files of accumulated papers, records and notes and more recently a database of information about the objects. Like any landscape it is a landscape that has been shaped by a variety of forces over time and by different interventions at different times. However it is evidence of a past that we are not able to shape entirely to our own demands and ideas, but which shapes us as much as we can shape it. While you may be able to construct Whig history as a cogent narrative; a charter myth that legitimates and justifies your position in the world, you cannot necessarily do the same as easily with the material world, short of knocking it down and building it up again in your own image.

The twentieth century was a century of modernism, when many interventions in the landscape proceeded in exactly this way. The Pitt Rivers Museum was nearly destroyed in the 1960s to be reformed along new lines as a modern interdisciplinary centre of research. Interestingly the new building would have enshrined the disciplinary separation of Archaeology and Anthropology, locating the archaeological and ethnographic specimens on different floors. Nevertheless though re-housed in a modernist building, the very location of the collections in Oxford would have served as a reminder of an earlier period and an earlier set of concerns, a period of imperial expansion when objects traveled to Oxford through a series of networks facilitated by a global empire. Undoing the past is no easy task, and even the de-colonisation that took place in the second half of the twentieth century could only partially undo the accumulated history of earlier times. Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children, has his central character, born at the moment of Indian independence from the illegitimate liason of an Indian woman and an English man, growing up in the house vacated by the same Englishmen on his departure. His bedroom continued to feature a picture of Walter Raleigh on the wall, an iconic image of British overseas adventuring. While much of Rushdie’s work is an allegorical exploration of the conditions of Indian independence and the post-colonial situation, it is also quite literally true that many of the buildings through which colonial governance took place were occupied by a new generation of occupants fulfilling the same roles, though frequently with a different shade of skin. Here at the Pitt Rivers Museum, we are, I would like to suggest, similarly inhabiting an institution created by a departed generation. The shadows they continue to cast over our lives and our thoughts are in many cases quite unknown and unwitting.

We can, as was suggested at the debate last week, only begin by starting from our position in the present and attempt to work our way back through the accumulated layers, the strata of continued occupation and begin to understand how we arrived at the place and time we now occupy. The understanding generated by this foray into the past, ideally should equip us to take action in the future with a greater understanding of the sorts of forces that have operated in the past. Departing from both straightforwardly presentist and historicist versions of history, R.G. Collingwood acknowledged that any historian is inevitably constrained by their own historical position and perspective, but insisted that their craft is an attempt to work their way imaginatively through the preoccupations of the present to understand the preoccupations of the past. He suggested that having done this ‘The historian’s business is to reveal the less obvious features hidden from a careless eye in the present situation. What history can bring to moral and political life is a trained eye for the situation in which one has to act.’ (1939:100).

This is perhaps the central point; that while one may explore the past without any of the personal drastic consequences imagined in the film Back to the Future, when one returns to the present, one still has to act, and one has to act with an eye to the future. Benoit de l’Estoile has recently written of an 'Anthropology of Colonial Legacies' but has suggested that in contrast to historical anthropology “an anthropology of colonial legacies is a distinct endeavour, exploring the various ways the colonial (and pre-colonial) past is negotiated, contested, reinvented, reinterpreted, forgotten or denied by the various heirs, sometimes in relative consensus, more often in conflict.” However his argument comes very close to that of Malinowski, whom he cites, suggesting that what is important is not the past, or the ways in which the past intrudes into the present, but rather the ways in which people talk about this and use it in particular ways. Archaeology is perhaps more useful here since it takes the presence of the ongoing past more seriously, and recognizes not only that it can shape the world in the present, but also that sometimes it does not present itself simply as a resource to be drawn upon, but rather intrudes as something that one must situate oneself in relation to.

Locating England 1: Locating the collection

So much for pre-amble and the first section of my title; how does this relate to the Other Within Project, which formally ends in just over two weeks time at the end of March? That project began with just such an intrusion into the present in the form of the content of the museum’s collections. The project hinged around a problem; how did you explain the fact that the Pitt Rivers Museum, an ethnographic museum famous for its presentation of overseas people included over 40,000 objects from England, over 12% of the museum’s total collections? If the museum was supposed to be about presenting the other, then surely all this material from close to home challenged that conception of the museum. What was the best way of making sense of this seemingly undeniable statistical fact regarding the large numbers of objects from England suggested by the museum’s database. This accumulated assemblage of material of a particular category presented itself from statistical analysis as a problem to be explained or accounted for. First however it was necessary to locate England in the Pitt Rivers Museum. It has been possible to ‘virtually’ excise these ‘English’ objects from the rest of the museum’s collections by creating a separate database only including English objects, and to a create a separate website with information about these. However the fact remains that it would be an impossible task to extricate all of the English objects from the museum, scattered as they are among the cases and storage areas of the museum. Nearly all of the visually obvious English items in the museum, the lace-making equipment, the stocks from Woodstock, the gun displays and the many keys, are closely linked with and displayed alongside objects from many different parts of the world.

In some ways a similar problem would befall anyone attempting to locate all the English people in the world. Even though the twentieth century saw the incremental disentangling of England from its political engagements with other parts of the world through progressive de-colonisation beginning with Ireland in 1922, and arguably ending with the devolution of political power to Wales and Scotland in the late 1990s, England and the English remain peculiarly tangled categories. How do you deal with all the people inhabiting England who would not identify as English, or account for those in the rest of the world who do? Locating England within the more expansive categories of Britain, the United Kingdom and the Empire and Commonwealth is no easier than attempting to locate England in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is not a formal category of organization, but rather an unmarked category frequently functioning as a synecdoche – England is all of this.

This lack of local geography as an organizing principle is an enormous contrast with the many local history museums established in England from the 1960s onwards in England. When we visited the stores of the Oxfordshire County Museums service as part of the project this contrast became even clearer as the system of classification for the collection, embodied in the collecting policy, operated an exclusionary principle towards objects from outside of Oxfordshire. This made it clear that if it is anything the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a local history museum for England. Its vision and organizing principles are global, and this is surely not unconnected to its origins in a Victorian Anthropology which was formed by a political context in which England not only had global ambitions but had achieved a global reach, both through its formal empire, but also significantly through its dominance of trade and manufacturing. To locate England and English objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum means trying to disentangle and dislocate the objects from a range of places throughout the museum. In the ways in which the Pitt Rivers Museum classifies, displays and stores its objects, its seems that their Englishness is not the most important thing about them.

Locating England 2: Locating places

Another strand of locating England attempted by the project was the geographical task of locating where in England the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum came from. We worked with a web designer David Harris, and more recently Dan Burt, to create a web-based map that would locate the English objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum. As ever the technical difficulties of doing this pointed up a series of issues about what it was we were actually doing. It was striking that around 70% of the English objects could be given some sort of reasonably precise geographical location. This is a marked contrast to many other parts of the world, where the relevant geographical information recorded by donors to the museum can at times be as imprecise as ‘Africa – club.’ As you will see, the geographical distribution of dots points up something very important which is the geographical location of the Pitt Rivers Museum in England. There are many more objects in the museum from Oxfordshire and many more places recorded as locations in that county than for many others counties. Both in the mental geographies of those collecting and presenting material to the museum and in their actual physical movement there seemed to be factors of proximity operating. The nearer you get to home, the more detailed relevant geographical information seems to become, and perhaps the more familiar and memorable place names are. Furthermore, the closer you get to the museum, the easier it seems that objects found their way into the museum. However in preparing the database we had to consider what it meant for an object to be from a particular place. The objects recorded as connected with a particular place in England by the database all definitely had a connection with that place, but the range of connections could be very different. An object could have been collected in a certain place, but in some cases it was rather made in an English place. Some items such as scrimshaw made from whales teeth by sailors, but recorded as English, were almost certainly not made in England, but by English sailors. Another object documented by Jeremy Coote elsewhere, is a brass patu, made as a model of a Maori club for Sir Joseph Banks. For the many archaeological objects with places recorded in England, the places generally referred to the places where they had been found or excavated, so at least that was fairly consistent, but even then they might well have been brought to England at some earlier point before their archaeological deposition.

When examined closely it seemed that the database recorded a family of meanings for objects being ‘from England’ and that the only generally applicable defintion was that all object had at some point in their biographies had a connection to a place somewhere in England. What about all the objects that spent time in the houses of their English donors before they were donated to the museum? Is it not true of all the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum are in a museum in England and in many cases have been for more time than they were in circulation outside the museum? Does this qualify them as English objects? It seems as if many of the objects the database recorded as being English had complicated biographies and were as entangled as the pacific objects for which Nicholas Thomas coined the moniker 'Entangled Objects'.

Locating England 3: Locating the English

Should we start instead with the English, with the people responsible for the museum and its collections and look at the ways in which a series of relationships centred around the Pitt Rivers Museum managed to create the collection as it exists now. They were after all responsible for locating the objects in England, in Oxford and at the museum. The problem here is that the museum database is very good at recording numbers of objects given to the museum, and though the number of objects a person gave to the museum is probably correlated to the importance of their relationship with the museum, it is not directly so. Some objects travel in larger packs than others – quite literally in fact. A pack of cards in its box will register as 53 objects, so a donation of 53 objects might turn out to be a single donation of one pack of playing cards. Another approach developed within this project sought to focus less on the numbers of objects involved in a single donation but instead treat each instance as an acquisition event. [See here for the in-depth analysis] Would the number and form of museum acquisition events associated with particular people be an indicator of the importance of their relationship with the Pitt Rivers Museum; the exchange partner in these events? This has been a revealing approach and has suggested a divergence of pattern to that suggested on the basis of numbers of objects acquired. Nevertheless one of the most significant features has been what it has suggested about these acquisition events.

Given this methodology, using a database of English objects current in September 2007, it has been possible to identify 1,515 acquisition events involving English objects and 796 different sources of material: individuals or institutions. These account for a total of 44,133 English objects, giving a mean collection size of approximately 29 objects at acquisition and a mean number of events per source of 1.9. However these numbers are not particularly revealing since a very large number of people were involved in only a single acquisition event, and a very small number were involved in a great many acquisition events. The museum’s first curator, Henry Balfour, who worked there from 1884 until his death in 1939 was involved in 104 acquisition events of English material, the largest number, and a considerable outlier in the distribution. It should be noted that these are events in which he is the source of the material, and not events in which he participated as an employee of the museum. The next highest number of acquisition events associated with a source is only 36.

For these 796 sources, the median number of acquisition events is 1 and the median average collection size at acquisition is 2 objects. Here again, the distribution when plotted shows that the vast majority of individuals have a mean collection size of around 1 – meaning that most people gave a single object when they were in contact with the museum. Here again there are two considerable outliers, Archibald Bell who sold over 3000 English objects in a single transaction and Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers who donated over 6000 English objects as part of two donations that formed the founding collection of the museum. Both donations were made up of large numbers of English stone tools. By contrast for over half of those who have been the source of the English objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum, their contact with the museum has been limited to a donations of 1 or two objects and in many cases these would also have been one-off donations. On the basis of these figures we can surmise that for most donors of English material to the Pitt Rivers, their relationship with the museum was short-lived, involved little cost to themselves and was probably reasonably insignificant to the whole of their lives and the range of other relationships and transactions in which they engaged.

What then did the Pitt Rivers Museum mean to them, and as inhabitants of England why did they choose to locate their collections from England at the Pitt Rivers of all places? A clue can be gained from examining the donation practices of those who were more frequent donors to the museum. Even for figures more intimately associated with the museum and its operation such as Henry Balfour and E.B. Tylor, major donations came at the end of their lives when their families came to dealing with and finding a place for their large collections. When the individuals who had built up the collections were no longer alive, the collections became a burden on their inheritors. They were valuable and important, but at the same time not something that a place could be found for in the ongoing lives of the inheritors. The collections became problematic material reminders of a departed person and a time past. They came, at that point to ‘belong in a museum’. The pattern is a well established one and many people approaching museums today with objects to donate have a similar end in mind. They are looking to ‘place’ their objects somewhere they will make sense, somewhere they will be appreciated, and crucially somewhere where they will not encumber their ongoing lives. For very many donors of English material, the Pitt Rivers Museum was not an ongoing exchange partner, with a meaningful relationship, but rather somewhere to locate objects in the cultural continuum between the mantelpiece, the attic and the dump. Crucially, however, museums are somewhere that objects are ‘taken care of’ but also somewhere where they are removed from circulation and the challenge presented by their age or associations with people and times past can be contained. The Pitt Rivers Museum in short for much of the time and for many people, like many other museums functioned as an ‘old object’s home.’

Locating England 4: In and out of the institution….

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a Victorian institution. Of course it has been in operation for over a hundred years since the death of Queen Victoria and was only opened less than two decades before the end of the Victorian period. It was argued in the debate last week that the museum as it is found today is an assemblage built up by the many years of its operation; a palimpsest archaeological site formed by the activity of many over many years. Nevertheless, the moment of its foundation continues to exert a disproportionate effect on how it operates and orders space. For many of us who have a close working relationship with the museum, our focus can become somewhat myopic. We become interested in particular objects, donors, curators and collectors. However this focus frequently leads us away from the museum, to the moments of collection, manufacture and exchange: all events that prefigure the arrival of objects in the museum. How much would we be able to say about the way a hospital operated by considering the lives of patients before they arrived, or analyse an old people’s home by considering the biographies of its inmates before they arrived.

Becoming a museum object is like becoming a hospital patient. Collection in the field is only the first step, perhaps like being collected by an ambulance or a taxi ride to hospital. On arrival at the museum, a new bureaucratic identity is given to the object when it is inscribed in the accession register. This moment of inscription also allocates the object an accession number. This is either attached to the object as a label, or in many cases inscribed directly onto the object, forever altering its physical form – the equivalent perhaps of the numbers tattooed onto inmates in Nazi concentration camps. This may seem an extreme analogy, and I am a believer in the view that states that all arguments must end when comparisons are made to the Nazis, but nevertheless the point is an important one. The inhabitants of museums are frequently objects and not humans, and intermediate cases such as human remains are very troubling, however the dynamics of institutional operation are in many cases very similar. Museum objects once accessioned are frequently handled in particular ways – using cotton or rubber gloves, are transported on wheeled trolleys and are located in serried ranks. The important information about an object is recorded on a label, a card catalogue or more recently a database and related correspondence is kept in a set of filing cabinets. When on display objects are locked into glass cases, and access to them is strictly controlled through regimented visiting hours – in the case of the Pitt Rivers Museum until recently these were not much longer than visiting hours at a hospital, care home or mental institution. To attempt to understand the museum as institution through examining the small number of objects actually placed on display would be like trying to understand the point of hospitals, prisons or asylums by assuming that they were created solely in order to provide a visitor experience.

The point of all these procedures is that objects in the museum have been removed from circulation. The relationships they can have with other people and objects, particularly from outside the institution become highly regulated. The professionals empowered by the institution have privileged knowledge about the objects, and even sometimes have their powerful positions marked by identity markers such as white coats or identity tags which give them privileged access to restricted areas. Museum objects are patients. Quite literally they are patients rather than agents, acted upon rather than acting, and their potential to impact upon others and be involved in a meaningful web of relationships with people and other objects is severely curtailed. Musical instruments do not get played, spears do not get thrown and masks do not get worn. They do not belong to anyone and they do not get passed from generation to generation. The relationship with curators and conservators is one of care, a professional relationship mediated by codes of professional conduct and relationship mediated by monetary payment. We all know that things can become muddled and attachments may be formed, but this is equally the case in the hospital or old people’s home.

Nevertheless some things are said to “belong in a museum”. It might similarly be said that some people should be in a home, in hospital or in an asylum. There is something out of the ordinary, unlike the everyday and evidently faintly troubling about these sorts of people and things. They are ‘the other’ and belong in places for ‘the other’ the institutions that Michel Foucault has called 'heterotopias'. The heterotopia is marked out from within the space of everyday life and discourse as set apart. The boundary or entrance way makes clear that one is entering a different sort of place, one where the troubling features of “other” kinds of things and people may be located. Foucault’s model of the heterotopia begins with the medieval church, a place set apart where birth and death are marked and where the bodies of those who have died may be located. As the site for encounters with God, the church becomes a place where the other is truly enshrined and located. However the course of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the rise of a number of secular heterotopic places in Europe and Foucault’s work has dealt with the importance of prisons, asylums, clinics and schools. Some of these are places of transformation such as the hospital or school where aspects of the other may be returned to the self and return to the everyday. However other heterotopic places have not always had such reformist ambitions. Prisons and asylums have not always been as focussed on returning their inmates to normal circulation and have frequently functioned as the final resting places of the most problematic and challenging among humans. Repatriation as it were has not always been on the agenda.

The example of repatriation is a relevant one, and it has been pointed out by Laura Peers that the parallels between museums as institutions and the boarding schools and missions where some indigenous inhabitants of settler societies were located have not been lost on indigenous peoples. The settler ideology of manifest destiny asserted that aboriginal races and the objects they made were destined to disappear so the best places for the remnants of these populations, these others were a series of institutions where this passing could be made more peaceful. The salvage paradigm in ethnographic collecting had much in common with parallel processes by which people were institutionalised. A salvage paradigm also operated in England, however in relation to items of magic witchcraft and superstition. Within the discourse of the Folklore Society in the late nineteenth century, one of the reasons for collecting materials was their inevitable disappearance, but this assertion became at times a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though forced institutionalisation is an example of the violence and power that can been exerted by the state, institutions have not always been involuntarily imposed on people. Sometimes the challenges of old and dangerous objects become so great that they are better taken care of by others and voluntarily surrendered for institutionalisation. Peter Riviére has noted that a shaman’s rattle in the Pitt Rivers Collection was volunteered to him on this basis, but it also seems to have motivated some of the donations of objects to the Pitt Rivers from England.

The institutions perhaps most clearly similar to museums, old people’s homes are often places where people that have passed their economic and social utility may be placed until they pass on to a new state of death where they may be safely rehabilitated in the form of ancestors and moulded into a non-challenging form that coexists with the notions of the living. The Pitt Rivers Museum is not only where myths come to die in James Fenton’s terms, but where objects do too! Obviously the museum tries not to have them die, but it takes care of them. However this phrase ‘to be taken care of’ is revealing in the multiplicity of its meanings. The curator is someone who ‘takes care of’ objects not only by preserving them, but also by keeping them out of the way, removing them from circulation, in the way that a gangster may ‘take care of’ a problematic person.

This is all very interesting, you might think, but what does it have to do with England and Englishness? The full title of the project is ‘The Other Within: An Anthropology of Englishness’ and begins with the starting point of what to make of the 40,000 or so objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum from England. The Pitt Rivers Museum has been thought of primarily as an ethnographic museum and therefore one where otherness is frequently on display. What I hope the discussion of institutions and institutional dynamics should have made clear is that questions of the other do not necessarily revolve around a geographical dichotomy between England and abroad. In order to locate England and English objects in the collections of the museum, we also need to locate the museum itself. It is in England, but it is also in Oxford, and attached to a Natural History Museum that sought to understand the history of life on earth. In another crucial manner, however, it is also a place out of place, a heterotopia or bounded space in which the rules of geography and time operate slightly differently.

Can we take an assemblage of 40,000 objects scattered throughout the assemblage of the museum and isolate from them an understanding of England or Englishness over the time period of 125 years during which the museum has been open. If you were an archaeologist and were excavating the site of a hospital, would you be justified for trying to gain a sense of the population of the country as a whole by using all the pieces of bone you found buried around the site? Obviously, because of the exceptional nature of the place, you are likely to find an extremely exceptional range of bones, from those that have been amputated to those that were kept for training because they showed examples of rare and frightening conditions. The assemblage that is the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum must be approached for what they are, a series of objects that were thought exceptional enough in the everyday lives of those who donated them to ‘belong in a museum.’

The English collections contain objects from historical others – the archaeological materials that make up two thirds of the English collections. The English collections also contain material from cultural others – the many examples of superstitions and survivals which though existing in England were nevertheless understood as examples of primitive life. However, it also contains a large number of objects that have become other because they have passed out of their period of economic and social utility. The old objects that people can’t bear to simply destroy and hope will be taken care of in a museum. The question we perhaps need to ask in trying to locate the English self is what is not in the Pitt Rivers Museum? The distribution map may have suggested that there is little material from the industrial cities of Englands midlands and north. There are very few examples of industrial mass production or the sorts of objects which the bourgeois curators of the museum typically used to live their lives.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, by including and confining certain objects and excluding and ignoring others, could, in the process, be making a very important statement about what the normal and the everyday actually was. Just as Foucault has suggested that Civilisation defined itself at least partly by the confinement of the mad, so in this case civilization was defined by assembling and confining a series of objects that demonstrated the ascent of civilisation. In the process British industrial civilization could assert itself as the inheritor and culmination of a process of the development of civilization that encompassed world history just as the British Empire encompassed world geography. This civilized self was not defined primarily because of a geographical location: in this case England. Being English did not make you civilized, just as being civilized allowed you to act across a global sphere. If we are to locate England anywhere in the Pitt Rivers Museum, I would suggest it must be in the absences, in the things that were so unremarkable and everyday that it never occurred to anyone that they belonged in a museum. Those absences cast an inverted shadow like the camera obscura, suggesting to the visitor to the Pitt Rivers Museum an image of what is outside the museum, of the self whose history it charts.

While the organising principle of the museum may suggest that England and civilization be located in this way, it poses a problem in terms of how we should relate to it today. Like the historical intrusions with which this paper began, the museum presents something against which we must define ourselves and locate England today. I would suggest that rather than pull down and rebuild the museum, as was planned in the 1960s, the new research centre represents an accommodation with the past; an attempt to find a way of operating with and in relation to the presence of the past in our midst. It may be that despite decolonisation and a century of nationalisms there may be something in the founding vision of the Pitt Rivers Museum that can be rehabilitated. Rather than see England as the inheritor and encompasser of global civilization we might situate ourselves in relation to the notion of civilization as a potentially rich cosmopolitan identity, more open and less exclusionary. While decolonisation has frequently resulted in attempts to excise and assert particular national identities as these were unravelled from an imperial mix, another strand has sought to locate places in the complex relations in which they continue to exist, the sort of vernacular cosmopolitanisms discussed by Homi Bhabha. Re-locating England at the Pitt Rivers Museum does not necessarily mean excising and separating the English collections away from all the rest, or even assigning them to locations in the English countryside. Instead it can mean locating them within the complex matrix of relations, both spatial and temporal in which they are suspended within the museum.


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