Ancient Egyptian cat figure 1884.58.79

Here are some other explanations of what Pitt-Rivers hoped to achieve when displaying his founding collection at Bethnal Green and South Kensington Museums (see other articles for longer accounts of the same principles):

My collection at Bethnal Green has been collected and arranged so as to shew at a glance the gradual development of savage and prehistoric implements from the forms of nature, so that by running the eye from left to right along the several specimens as they are arranged on the screens, the visitor may see the gradual divergence of the forms ...” [Pitt Rivers’ talk to the Whitechapel Foundation School 1875, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Pitt Rivers manuscript collections P42 page 9-10]

It is clear that the displays were constantly being updated between 1874 and 1884. Not only do the day or van books of the Museums (known to the Pitt Rivers Museum as 'the green book') make it clear that many deliveries of new artefacts were received but also this excerpt from a letter from Macleod of the Museum to Pitt-Rivers:

“... with reference to the purchase of certain specimens which are exhibited by Mr T.J. Hutchinson at the Bethnal Green Branch Museum. In reply, I am to inform you that under the circumstances stated in your letter, the regulation prohibiting the sale of objects during the period for which they are lent to the South Kensington Museum or its branch at Bethnal Green, will be exceptionally relaxed, and the specimens which you have purchased may at once be transferred to your collection.” [Letter dated 5 June 1874, held at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum’s Pitt Rivers ms collections P 117]

Pitt-Rivers himself made this clear later in life:

‘It is also satisfactory to me to find that [Balfour’s] researches [on the composite bow] have done nothing to discredit the views that I at first held, but have rather confirmed them, and I trust he will be encouraged to take up hereafter an original subject of his own, for nearly all the arts of life are capable of the same developmental treatment, and the field that is open for the curator of a Museum of Evolution such as I have endeavoured to establish at Oxford, is almost unlimited. In a Museum so designed and arranged, no halting place is possible: it must itself develop as the series of objects contained in it have developed: new series will have to be introduced and old series must be extended, modified, and the superfluous objects tending to confuse the sequence of their development must be eliminated.’ [Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum PR ms collections, P63]

He made allowances for the continual work needed on his collections by personally appointing and paying for a Curator of his collection, still located at South Kensington Museum, in 1881. [Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Pitt Rivers manuscript collections P 131, letter from G.F. Duncombe to Pitt Rivers dated 14.12.1881]

He criticised other museums (and, by extension, praised his own):

‘Until quite recently, the curators of our ethnographical museums have aimed more at the collection of unique specimens, serving to exhibit well-marked differences of form, than such as by their resemblance enable us to trace out community of origin. The arrangement of them has been almost universally bad, and has been calculated rather to display the several articles to advantage, on the principle of shop windows, than to facilitate the deduction of science.’ [Pitt Rivers, 1906:99]

Pitt Rivers remarked at about the time his collection was given to Oxford:

‘If I were going to lecture about my collection, I should draw attention to the value of the arrangement, not so much on account of the interest which attaches to the development of the tools, weapons in themselves, but because they best serve to illustrate the development that has taken place in the branches of human culture, which cannot be so arranged in sequence because the links are lost and the successive ideas through which progress has been effected have never been embodied in material forms, on which account the Institutions of Mankind often appear to have developed by greater jumps than has really been the case. But in the material arts the links are preserved and by due search and arrangement can be placed in their proper sequence. ... I should be glad if you would kindly mention that I look upon my Museum as being in no way an exception from the ordinary laws affecting all human affairs in regard to development, and that so far from considering it perfect as it is, I cannot conceive of any idea of finality in a Museum of the kind. It might embrace all the arts of mankind, but all that can be done is to keep on perfecting certain typical series which shew the sequence best. In doing this an arrangement to shew the distribution of like objects must necessarily precede an arrangement to show development. I have had on one or two occasions had to carry on the first arrangement for some years before the course of development becomes apparent, and then a new arrangement commences, so that a collection of this kind must necessarily be in a constant state of transition. The difficulty of collecting links is of course very great as one only tumbles upon them accidentally but I believe that any traveller who had previously obtained an idea of the course of development in a Museum of this kind might add enormously to the number of links and varieties in the country from which they come and so add largely to the Museum. There has however been no instance as yet of any traveller who has systematically collected on this plan, and one can therefore form an idea of the great increase which may become necessary hereafter, and the necessity of allowing space for it, either by a larger building than is necessary to contain the present collection, or by building it in such a situation that an extra room can be added to it at some future time. If you would like to have my large diagrams showing the sections of the tombs in which the Egyptian flints were found I shall be happy to send them to Oxford.’ [Pitt Rivers in London to Tylor, 5 February 1883, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Pitt Rivers correspondence L.106]

Bibliography for this article

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1906 [ed. JL Myers, intro by Henry Balfour] The Evolution of Culture and other essays Clarendon Press Oxford UK

AP, June 2010.

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