Taken from 'Presidential Address', British Association for the Advancement of Science, Section H, Anthropology, 1888: Report of the BAAS pp. 825-828


[I] wish to make a few observations on the means to be taken to promulgate anthropological knowledge and render it available for the education of the masses.

Taking the last mentioned subject first, I will commence with anthropological museums, to which I have given attention for many years. In my judgment, an institution that is dedicated to the Muses should be something more than a store, and should have some backbone in it. It should be in itself a means of conveying knowledge, and not a mere repository of objects from which knowledge can be culled by those who know where to look for it. A national museum, created and maintained at the public expense, should be available for public instruction, and not solely a place of reference for savants.

I do not deny the necessity that exists for museum stores for the use of students, but I maintain that, side by side with such stores, there should in these days exist museums instructively arranged for the benefit of those who have no time to study, and for whom the practical results of anthropological and other scientific investigations are quite as important as for savants.

The one great feature that it is desirable to emphasise in connection with the exhibition of archaeological and ethnological specimens is evolution. To impress upon the mind the continuity and historical sequence of the arts of life, is, with out doubt, one of the most important lessons to be inculcated. It is only of late years that the development of social institutions has at all entered into the design of educational histories. And the arts of life, so far as I am aware, have never formed part of any educational series. Yet as a study of evolution they are the most important of all, because in them the connecting links between the various forces of development can be better displayed.

The relative value of any subject for this purpose is not in proportion to the interest which attaches to the subject in the abstract. Laws, customs, and institutions should perhaps be regarded as of greater importance than the arts of life, but for anthropological purposes they are of less value, because in them, previously to the introduction of writing, the different phases of development, as soon as they are succeeded by new ideas, are entirely lost and cannot be reproduced except in imagination. Whereas in the arts of life, in which ideas are embodied in material forms, the connecting links are in many cases preserved, and can be replaced in their proper sequence by means of antiquities.

For this reason the study of the arts of life ought always to precede the study of social evolution, in order that the student may learn to make allowance for missing links, and to avoid sophisms and the supposition of laws and tendencies which have no existence in reality.

To ascertain the true causes for all the phenomena of human life is the main object of anthropological research, and it is obvious that this is better done in those branches in which the continuity is best preserved.

In the study of natural history, existing animals are regarded as present phases in the development of species, and their value to the biological student depends, not so much on their being of the highest organism, as on the palaeontological  sequence by which their history is capable of being established. In the same way existing laws, institutions, and arts, wherever they are found in their respective stages of perfection, are to be regarded simply as existing strata in the development of human life, and their value from an anthropological point of view depends on the facilities they afford for studying their history.

If I am right in this view of the matter, it is evident that the arts of life are of paramount importance, because they admit of being arranged in cases by means of antiquities in the order in which they actually occurred, and by that means they serve to illustrate the development of other branches which cannot be so arranged, and the continuity of which is therefore not open to visual demonstration for the benefit of the unlearned.

It is now considerably over thirty years since I first began to pay attention to this subject. Having been employed in experimenting with new inventions in firearms, submitted to H.M. Government in 1852-3, I drew up in 1858 a paper which was published in the 'United Services Journal,' showing the continuity observable in the various ideas submitted for adoption in the army at that time.

Later, in 1867-8 and 9, I published three papers, which, in order to adapt them to the institutions at which they were read, I called 'Lectures on Primitive Warfare,' but which, in reality, were treatises on the development of primitive weapons, in which it was shown how the earliest weapons of savages arose from the selection of natural forms of sticks and stones, and were developed gradually into the forms of implements of the bronze age and their transition into those of the iron age. These papers were followed by others on the same subject read at the Royal Institution and elsewhere, relating to the development of special branches, such as Early Modes of Navigation, Forms of Ornament, Primitive Locks and Keys, the Distribution of the Bow, and its development into what I termed the composite bow in Asia and America, and other subjects.

Meanwhile I had formed a museum in which the objects to which the papers related were arranged in developmental order. This was exhibited by the Science and Art department at Bethnal Green from 1874 to 1878, and at South Kensington from that date to 1885, and a catalogue raisonne was published by the Department, which went through two editions. After that, wishing to find a permanent home for it, where it would increase and multiply, I presented it to the University of Oxford, the University having granted 10,000 l. to build a museum to contain it. It is there known as the 'Pitt-Rivers Collection,' and is arranged in the same order as at South Kensington. Professor Moseley has devoted much attention to the removal and re-arrangement of it up to the time of his recent, but I trust only temporary illnesss, which has been so great a loss to the University, and which has been felt by no-one connected with it more than by myself; for whilst his great experience as a traveller and anthropologist enabled him to improve and add to it, he has at the same time always shown every disposition to do justice to the original collection. Since Professor Moseley's illness it has been in the charge of Mr H. Balfour, who I am sure will follow in the steps of his predecessor and former chief, and will do his best to enlarge and improve it. he has already added a new series in relation to the ornamentation of arrow-stems, which has been published by the Anthropological Institute. It appears, however, desirable that the same system should be established in other places, and with that view I have for some time past been collecting the materials for a new museum, which, if I live long enough to complete it, I shall probably plant elsewhere.

Before presenting the collection to Oxford I had offered it to the Government, in the hope that it might form the nucleus of a large educational museum arranged upon the system of development which I had adopted. A very competent committee was appointed to consider the offer, which recommended that it should be accepted, but the Government declined to do so; one of the reasons assigned being that some of the authorities of the British Museum thought it undesirable that two ethnographical museums should exist in London at the same time; this, however, entirely waives the question of totally different objects that the two museums (at least that part of them which relates to ethnographical specimens) are intended to serve.

The British Museum, with its enormous treasures of art, is itself only in a molluscous and invertebrate condition of development. For the education of the masses it is of no use whatever. It produces nothing but confusion in the minds of those who wander through its long galleries with but little knowledge of the periods to which the objects contained in them relate. The necessity of storing all that can be obtained, and all that is presented to them in the way of specimens, precludes the possibility of a scientific or an educational arrangement.

... I venture to put forwards a plea for a national anthropological museum upon a large scale, using the term in its broadest sense, arranged stratigraphically in concentric rings upon the plan of the diagram now exhibited. It is a large proposal, no doubt, but one which, considering the number of years I have devoted to the subject, I hope I shall not be thought presumptuous in submitting for the consideration of the Anthropological Section of this Association.

The palaeolithic period being the earliest, would occupy the central ring, and having fewer varieties of form would require the smallest space. Next to it the neolithic and bronze age would be arranged in two concentric rings, and would contain, beside the relics of those periods, models of prehistoric monuments, bone caves, and other places interesting on account of the prehistoric finds that have been made in them. After that, in expanding order, would come Egyptian, Greek, Assyrian, and Roman antiquities, to be followed by objects of the Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Merovingian periods; these again in developmental outward expansion would be surrounded by mediaeval antiquities, and the outer rings of all might then be devoted to showing the evolution of such modern arts as could be placed in continuity with those of antiquity.

In order that the best objects might be selected to represent the different periods and keep up the succession of forms which would constitute the chief object of the museum, I would confine the exhibition chiefly to casts, reproductions, and models, the latter being, in my opinion, a means of representing primitive arts, which has not yet been sufficiently made use of, but which in my small local museum of Farnham, Dorsetshire, I have employed to a considerable extent, having as many as twenty-three models, similar to those now exhibited, of places in which things have been found within an area of two miles.

The several sections and rings would be superintended by directors and assistants, whose function it would be to obtain reproductions and models of the objects best adapted to display the continuity of their several arts and periods; and the arts selected for representation should be those in which this continuity could be most persistently adhered to. Amongst these the following might be named:- Pottery, architecture, house furniture, modes of navigation, tools, weapons, weaving apparatus, painting, sculpture, modes of land transport and horse furniture, ornamentation, personal ornament, hunting and fishing apparatus, machinery, fortification, modes of burial, agriculture, ancient monuments, domestication of animals, toys, means of heating and of providing light, the use of food, narcotics, and so forth.

Miscellaneous collections calculated to confuse the several series, and having no bearing on development, should be avoided, but physical anthropology relating to man as an animal, might find its place in the several sections.

I have purposely avoided in my brief sketch of this scheme giving unnecessary detail. Any cut-and-dried plan would have to be greatly altered, according to the possibilities of the case, when the time for action arrived. My object is to ventilate the general idea of a large anthropological Rotunda, which I have always thought would be the final outcome of the activity which has shown itself in this branch of science during the last few years, and which I have reason to believe is destined to come into being before long. In such an institution, the position of each phase of art development shows itself at once by its distance from the centre of the space, and the collateral branches would be arranged to merge into each other according to their geographical positions.

The advantages of such an institution would be appreciated, not by anthropologists and archaeologists only. It would adapt itself more especially to the limited time for study at the disposal of the working classes, for whose education it is unnecessary to say that at the present time we are all most deeply concerned. Although it is customary to speak of working men as uneducated, education is a relative term, and it is well to remember that in all that relates to the material arts they have, in the way of technical skill and handicraft, a better groundwork for appreciating what is put before them than the upper classes. That they are able to educate themselves by means of a well-arranged museum, my own experience, even with the imperfect arrangements that have been at my command, enables me to testify. Anything that tends to impress the mind with the slow growth and stability of human institutions and industries, and their dependence upon antiquity must, I think, contribute to check revolutionary ideas, and the tendency which now exists, and which is encouraged by some who should know better, to break drastically with the past, and must help to inculcate conservative principles, which are urgently needed at the present time, if the civilisation that we enjoy is to be maintained and to be permitted to develop itself. ...


[Transcribed by AP, June 2010 for the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project]


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