An important measure of museum success in the twenty-first century is the number of visitors it has in a year. Large museums often use visitor figures to bolster their importance and prove their public worth. This is evidently not a new phenomenon as Pitt-Rivers often boasts in his publications about the attendance figures at the various museums where his collections were displayed. This page examines those figures.

Attendance figures at Bethnal Green and South Kensington displays of Pitt-Rivers' founding collection

Relatively little information is available about attendance at Bethnal Green Museum. Chapman says:

[Pitt-Rivers'] display at Bethnal Green was, in contemporary terms, a popular success. Attendance figures, while they cannot be tied specifically to [Pitt-Rivers'] collection as opposed to other exhibits in the museum, suggest that as many as half a million visitors saw the collection over the course of [1874-5]. Over half the visitors came during the evening hours, during which the museum was opened for the convenience of workingmen.'  [1981: 385]

This (frankly incredible) figure is based upon the 22nd annual report of the Science and Art Department, South Kensington Museum page 443. Presumably the collection continued to be as popular when it moved to the main South Kensington Museum site in 1878 where it occupied 'two rooms in the Exhibition Galleries on the western side of the Horticultural Gardens’. It is not known how the visitor count was achieved.

Although le Schonix boasts, on Pitt-Rivers' behalf, that there was no public disorder associated with his institutions on his estate, (see below) the same was not entirely true when his collection was shown in London. Chapman records that G.F. Duncombe, the South Kensington Museum staff member responsible for the Pitt-Rivers collection reported to Pitt-Rivers in September 1874 that 5 darts (arrows) had been stolen:

'It has ... become evident that wire does not afford sufficient protection, and arrangements have been made therefore to place under glass, with as little delay as possible, the few small objects that are not now protected'. [Chapman, 1981: 386]

Attendance figures at Farnham Museum, King John's House and Larmer Grounds

Attendance figures at these locations were confirmed by visitors being asked to sign in books when they visited. Presumably these signatures (or manual counting by the custodians) was the way the following figures were arrived at.

Attendance figures to Pitt-Rivers' Dorset properties

According to Roach le Schonix:

'... General Pitt-Rivers' extraordinary generosity has been well appreciated. The following table shows the number of visitors to the various places during successive years [see image]. It is also most satisfactory to learn that there has never been a single instance of drunkeness, disorder, or trouble of any kind during the seven years that the Larmer and the museum have been open to the public; nor has any damage whatever been done.

The grounds and the museums are at a considerable distance from railways or any large centre of population, which makes them all the more attractive to those seeking intelligent pleasure. The distance from Blandford Forum is 9 miles, from Shaftesbury 7 1/2 miles, from Wimborne 13 miles, and from Salisbury 17 miles. Every kind of refreshment can be obtained at the Museum Hotel, Farnham, Salisbury (Hector Day proprietor), and there are good bedrooms and sitting-rooms. General Pitt-Rivers has enlarged the hotel expressly for visitors to the museum, and we can testify that there is excellent and reasonable accommodation. It will be a pleasure if our account of these collections (see the various web transcriptions available under Articles in menu on right) induces any readers of the Antiquary to visit this too little known district, which has many interests for the artist and general tourist, as well as for the keenest of archaeologists and anthropologists.

A Guide-Book to the Larmer Grounds and Museum (16 pages and 20 full page illustrations) Edward Stanford, price 1s) has recently been issued by General Pitt-Rivers, to which we are indebted for several of the particulars given above.

Pitt-Rivers was obviously proud of the attendance figures at Farnham. In 1889-90 he gave a talk at the Blackmore Museum, Salisbury (one wonders what their attendance figures were?!) where he said:

... During the last year it was shown, by the Visitor's Book that from September 1888 to September 1889, it was visited by 6,152 persons, which considering that it is 10 miles distant from every Town and Railway Station, and that it is situated in a sparsely populated, agricultural District, is a larger number than I ever expected, and shews that it is already serving a useful purpose.

The founding collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The Pitt Rivers Museum began accepting donations from other donors in 1884 (before items from the founding collection had been transferred from South Kensington Museum and long before the building work was completed and displays open to the public - see here for further information about this). However, up to 1900 when Pitt-Rivers himself died (and maybe beyond), the collections and displays at the museum at Oxford continued to be dominated by the founding collection. No visitor figures for these years were recorded in the annual reports which only began in 1888. This may be because at this point in its history the Pitt Rivers Collection (as it was then known) was considered a department of the larger Oxford University Museum (now known as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History). Visitor figures to the founding collection would have been subsumed under the general ones for that institution and it is now impossible to work out the figures for the Pitt Rivers Collection itself.

In 1901 the (Pitt Rivers) Museum's Annual Report commented:

'The attendance of visitors has been at least as large as in former years, and an increasing interest in the Museum is manifest.'

But no figure was given which can be used in comparative figures with Pitt-Rivers' private museums. The following year the Annual Report records:

'Increasing use is made of the collections by students engaged in research, and a considerable amount of time is devoted by the Curator to visitors interested either in General Ethnology or in special subjects for the study of which the material in the Museum is of importance.'

The following year (1903) the collection's Curator, Henry Balfour, records:

There has been no apparent falling off in the number of visitors, nor in the interest shown in the general collection or in special series.

Balfour ceases to record public visits to the museum until 1911 when he remarks, 'In response to a request from the Mayor, facilities were given for parties of school-children to visit the Museum in charge of responsible teachers. About 150 children in parties of about 12 at a time were thus shown over the Museum'.

In fact it was not until the Annual Report for 1942-3 that a figure for public attendance was finally given, a figure coincidentally that sheds good light on Pitt-Rivers' own attendance figures in isolated rural Dorset:

'Our friends and well-wishers will be glad to know that about 7,000 people have visited our exhibitions this year, and that every one of our roofs is at last sound and weather-proof.'

This figure sounds estimated to the author. It was not until the late twentieth century that counting visitors became more of a science than an art with the rise of electronic counters. In 2006, despite the fact that two-thirds of the museum was closed for refurbishment the annual report records some 185,000 visitors.

AP, June 2010.

Bibliography for this article

Chapman, William Ryan 1981. ‘Ethnology in the Museum: A.H.L.F. Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) and the Institutional Foundations of British Anthropology’, University of Oxford: D.Phil. thesis.

le Schonix, R. 1894. 'The Museums at Farnham, Dorset, and at King John's House, Tollard Royal', The Antiquary 30, 166-71

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