Brown Bag Review 28/10/09: The Pitt-Rivers Museum

Organising team: Sandra Dudley & Julia Petrov
Visiting Speaker: Alison Petch (Senior Research Associate and Registrar, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Title: Muddying the waters: The Pitt-Rivers collection from 1850-2009.
Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1826-1900) used typological distinctions to think about the artefacts in his extensive collections. He was an important contributor to the development of anthropology as a discipline, and a museum subject, between 1850 and 1900. He believed that ethnographic and archaeological collections were vital tools in the study of contemporary and past human cultures.
Pitt-Rivers divided his artefacts by type of artefact, either by use or function, or by the decorative designs inherent in it. These divisions were not only intellectual but physical, visible in the museum displays of his collection in London from 1874 to 1884 and again, for his private collection, at Farnham in Dorset between 1880-1900.
The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884 on the understanding that the University of Oxford would carry on Pitt-Rivers' general method of arrangement of objects during his lifetime and the agreement that any changes after that date would only be instituted if the advance of knowledge required it. In reality, however, changes were wrought almost immediately and Pitt-Rivers' categorisations altered as new artefacts were constantly added to his typographical series. This paper will examine the history of these events and contextualise it in the light of the conclusions Pitt Rivers, his peers and his successors, drew from them.
Alison's talk focused on evolution, both in terms of socio-technological evolution as Pitt-Rivers perceived it, as well as the evolution of the collection and museum themselves. Having started collecting in 1852, by 1874, when some of his collection was displayed at Bethnal Green Museum, Pitt-Rivers' belief in using a natural history approach toward the classification of ethnographic and archaeological material had crystallized into a demonstration of the linear progression of design and technology from the simple to the complex. Through the exhibits, organized by typologies and series, Pitt-Rivers' explicit political aim was to demonstrate to the under-educated museum-going public that improvement of material conditions was a slow and gradual evolution, not to be gained by revolution. As his relationship with the authorities of the South Kensington Museum [now the V&A, parent body to the Bethnal Green museum] deteriorated, P-R began a new collection in Farnham, Dorset, where he sought to educate the agricultural workers of that remote area. These educational goals were probably at the core of his decision to donate the Bethnal Green/ South Kensington Collection to Oxford in 1883.

While initially the same fittings and arrangements were used for the Oxford displays as had been in London, changing curatorial interests (with the legal transfer of the collection to the University, P-R himself ceased to be involved, and a succession of professional, academic curators were appointed to maintain and develop the Museum) and the continued arrival of new artifacts meant that displays were constantly rearranged - contrary to popular belief about the PRM being a time capsule of Victorian anthropology. Using the example of tribal shields, Alison compared the initial arrangement of the displays by type and evolutionary series to a later, more contextualized arrangement which compared items by geographic region. She also challenged the notion that the museum's space (not just the interiors of cabinets) was static by presenting an unrealized plan for a rotunda-style building, as well as by pointing out the numerous interventions and rearrangements of thematic displays and temporary exhibitions. She concluded, however, that whereas the evolution of the museum had been roughly in line with contemporary preoccupations in the wider museum community, this had somewhat problematically and unreflexively clashed with the initial mission for the museum, and had led to an unclear statement of purpose for the raison d'etre of the displays as they have evolved.

Alison's talk was an excellent example of well-researched institutional history, serving as an example of the curatorial and collecting pitfalls frequently warned against in museological literature. It was also a surprising report on the actual confused state of the displays in the Museum, frequently assumed to be static and "frozen in time." Some questions remained unanswered - for example: how did the original displays compare with other epistemological systems evident in other, similar museums and collections of the time? How can the PRM make clearer its current aims and objectives while staying true to its idiosyncratic history? Perhaps Alison's new research project, focusing on the now-lost Farnham collection, can go some ways toward illuminating the unique, and also the common aspects of this historic collection.


Jenny said…
Thank you Julia! I look forward to hearing more about the Farnham project in the future. I think the way the PRM has changed has been very different from that of other museums and exploring the relationships between them would be a really worthwhile thing. Thank you for organising it from afar - it's good to finally have you with us!
Amy said…
I thought the rotunda idea rather exciting! My mind must have wandered (not Alison's fault, my own for not getting enough sleep the night before) because I was convinced the architectural drawings were a contemporary proposal (and not dating back to the 1960s as was actually the case). I was a little surprised that the PRM would consider such a radical move. ;)
Jenny said…
Just a it wrong for a museum to be 'frozen in time' if it admits to being so, and rationalizes that decision?
J said…
Jenny: No, I don't think so - there is a value in it. The V&A, for example, have preserved their cast courts because they are now a relic of an earlier age of museology and valuable in a different way. I think what Alison was correctly pointing out, however, is that the PRM is neither frozen in time, nor explicit about its actual appearance and workings.

Off to edit this, there are dreadful spelling errors. Sorry!
Jenny said…
Hey Julia - we'll excuse you for the typos on account of you being jet-lagged!

Yes, I think that is what Alison was saying. It's interesting. I'm always of the opinion that museums should take a stand on what they are trying to say - and if they don't know what they are trying to say, they should take a stand on that!

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