Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Mary MacLeod Banks

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

M.M. Banks (1861-1951), as she usually signed her papers, was President of the Folk-Lore Society from 1937 to 1939. Mrs Banks' father, D.C. McConnel, was a pioneer in Queensland, Australia where he arrived in 1840. Mary was born in 1861 in Edinburgh, she was educated in Europe but spent a great deal of her childhood in Queensland. She married an English architect, Alfred Banks but unfortuately he died as they returned to the UK. During her younger years she worked with Octavia Hill, and did rent-collecting in East London. She travelled widely through Europe, though her base was in London. She first joined the society in 1906 and became a member of the Council in 1912. She was the first recipient of the Society's Medal for Folk Lore Research in 1947, awarded for her work on Calendar Customs, a particular interest of hers. She was also a member of the Royal Historical Society, and the Philological Society. During the Second World War she was resident in Oxford when she had quite a lot of contact with the Pitt Rivers Museum and continued her work with the Society. Her neice wrote to Laurence Gomme, the President, that Mrs Banks 'interest in the work and her association with you all, was ... the greatest pleasure in her life'.

She published many papers in Folklore. One of these papers was a summary of the Museums that held folk collections in England. But most dealt with specific traditions and festivals in England and elsewhere. Her 1938 Presidential address was titled, 'Syncretism in a Symbol'.

Banks' donations to the Pitt Rivers Museum

She donated a total of 11 artefacts to the Museum, between 1928 and 1943 (in three donations). There were artefacts from Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), a horse-brass from Germany, a chamber pot from Aberdeen used as a 'wedding-charm', and from London:

Five (stamped) brass ornaments worn on a horses’ harness. 28 [inserted] early Saracen type [end of insertion] plain crescent, 29 crescent and star, 30 circle and star pattern, 31 diamond star pattern, 32 prancing horse England. (Collected in London). [1943.10.28-32]

These were donated when Mrs Banks was living in Oxford, presumably to avoid the bombing in London during the Second World War. She must have obtained the remainder of her artefacts during her travels in Europe, and the horse-brasses whilst she was resident in London before the war.

Her personal connection to the Museum and to Balfour, the curator until 1939 can be gleaned from her obituary for him in Folklore:

But it is as a friend that Professor Balfour was most highly esteemed by those who had the privilege of knowing him and who were able to value his readiness to discuss baffling problems with others whose knowledge was insignificant compated with his own, who had experienced his welcome of small gifts to his museum as though they were priceless treasures, and his encouragement of every undertaking in the friendly spirit of a cooperator. It was one of the greatest pleasures of a congress here and abroad to meet him there; for many years his absence will be felt as a blank and a deprivation.[Banks, 1939: 111-2]

Further Reading

M. M. Banks 1945 'Folk Museums and Collections in England' Folklore, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Mar., 1945), pp. 218-222

Banks, Mary M. 'Obituary Notice: Henry Balfour' Folklore, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 1939), pp. 111-112

E. F. C. L. 1952 'Mary Macleod Banks' Folklore, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Mar., 1952), pp. 42-43