This paper was read at a 'Friday seminar' at the Pitt Rivers Museum in 27 April 2007 as part of a joint presentation with Chris Wingfield, the author's co-researcher on the Other Within ESRC-funded research project. This paper long pre-dates the start of the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers research project but this paper shows some interesting sidelines that reflect upon the founding collection of Pitt-Rivers. Please note that despite the hints in the paper that the thoughts in this paper would be further developed they were not. The thoughts contained in this paper would not necessarily be expressed in exactly the same way if they were written now (end March 2011, half way through the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project, knowing what we know now). Occasionally references to data only shown in the slides that accompanied the talk have been omitted, these are marked by ellipses ... This paper pre-dates the decision to hyphenate Pitt-Rivers' surname.

The products of industry? The early development of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Long, long ago, papers presented at this seminar series were often 'works in progress', rough early drafts of some future masterpieces. These days, I have noticed, the papers are generally much more polished. Today I give you a chance to revisit the past, to hear a talk which is genuinely at the very early stages of gestation, maybe even to contribute to the direction it finally takes, though I cannot promise a masterpiece at the end of it.

This paper was inspired by something Beatrice Blackwood wrote in 1970 which I have often thought about since I first read it:

'Questions are sometimes asked about the scope and range of the collections [of the Pitt Rivers Museum]. The Museum takes the world for its province, and for its period, from the earliest times to the present day, excluding the results of mass production. [Blackwood, 1970: 16, emphasis mine]

As I have carried out my day-to-day work in the Museum over the years I have not been able to stop pondering these words. Why, when I saw the products of industrial or mass production in many vitrines, had these words been written in a book which was as close as it gets to a mission statement for the first 100 years of the Museum's life?

The dictionary definition of mass production is:

The manufacture of goods in large quantities by an automated process.

In other words to produce artefacts by an industrial process or by the use of machines. Industrial manufacture is defined as:

The action or process of making or producing articles, material, or a commodity (in modern use, usually on a large scale) by physical labour, machinery, etc.

I also wondered at the slightly pejorative reaction that Blackwood's statement gave me, that somehow the hand-made was 'better' or more interesting than the machine-made even though both were equally the products of human inventiveness. This uncomfortableness with the concept of mass production; and the belief in the uniqueness of some forms of objects seem to be a common thread for many (perhaps, most or all) museum collections and curators. It is also an attitude shared by some members of the public. To me, it is as important to celebrate the human ingenuity inherent in industrialization as it is to marvel at a single handcrafted item. Both are the result of a combination of human manual dexterity and developed intellectual capacity. They are interesting for showing ranges of technical solutions to the same sorts of problems. To my mind the intermeshing of industrial processes, machines and human endeavour globally is too close to allow any sensible distinction.

I can see that a Museum needs to limit its remit in some ways but this dictum does not seem to me to have been matched in reality nor does it, in fact, correspond with the beliefs behind the founding collection of the Museum. The Museum, as an institution, through Blackwood in 1970, may have positioned itself against the acquisition of the creations of mass production but the collections have many such examples. This was recognized even by Blackwood:

'Our Founder felt very strongly that his methods could and should be applied not only topresent or recent arts and industries, but also to those of the distant past ...' [Blackwood, 1970: 9, boldening mine]

The inconsistency of these two statements from the same book do not seem to have occurred to her. It is generally accepted that the Pitt Rivers Museum has always emphasised the collection of items that were 'ordinary and typical', though Blackwood was not the first to acknowledge that it also possessed 'many objects of rarity, beauty, and value.' [Blackwood, 1970: 8] However, it is hard not to think of the production of stone tools as a form of mass production, and we have plenty of those in the collections.

This seeming concentration on the 'primitive' or hand-made in the case of artefacts is mirrored by a particular view of anthropology.  In the dictionary it is defined as 'the study of man or mankind in the widest sense'. Ethnography was generally agreed to be 'the scientific description of nations or races of men, with their customs, habits, and points of difference'. This view of the subject matter does not preclude looking at any human society, however 'developed'. Indeed, these days social anthropologists examine many aspects of modern European life, for example. Do ethnographic museums, therefore, if they shy away from the merchandise of industrial production, in fact fail to serve their entire purpose?

I have always been interested, by some personal quirk of character, in de-bunking the various myths that have arisen around the Museum, like the old canard about it being a 'museum of museums' (which I will not address here but I totally refute). Here, I felt, was another myth in the making, that the museum only dealt with the handmade, the one-off. I think the lasting effects of this dictum, if accepted, would be pernicious as it allies itself too closely with a narrow definition of what the museum could, and in my opinion should, be about; which is, according to the first part of our current mission statement, to celebrate '... human ingenuity and creative skill'.

This paper explores the early development of the Pitt Rivers Museum in the light of industrialization, mass production and 'modern' industrial products. It will concentrate on the period up to 1939 because of lack of time, but of course it would be equally relevant to review the post World War II situation. I have centred the paper on the English collections as they are the current focus of my attention.

[Before I get on to the meat of my considerations I want to warmly acknowledge the contributions to this paper made by Frances Larson, from the 'Relational Museum' project, who was kind enough to allow me to use her research in parts of this paper and also made many helpful suggestions.]

The accepted cliché about Oxford is of an ancient English university town: dreaming spires, narrow lanes, ancient buildings and bicycles. No-one can deny that there is some verity in this stereotype but it is not the whole truth. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884, some hundred years after the introduction of industrial processes had changed the face of Britain (and later, the world) for ever. But in that year Oxford was still dominated by the University, its major employer. The population mostly still lived and worked in what is now the city centre, with small developments along the access roads into the city.  In 1913, a man named William Morris (not that one) began to make cars in Cowley, since then the city has been a manufacturing centre. From the start of the twentieth century its population increased rapidly to provide the workforce for the expanding industrial enterprises. The relationships between the two halves, or 'town and gown' (as another cliché commonly applied to Oxbridge puts it), are complex and have, at times, been troubled.

Although the collections of the University of Oxford are global in terms of their reach and importance, one might expect them to reflect, at least in part, their home institution and the city that surrounds them. Mass production has played a major role in making Oxford, and the UK, the place it is today but have the ethnographic collections of Oxford University reflected the changing face of the surrounding society?

The University as a whole had always had collections from Oxfordshire and England (many now in the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Library). It is perhaps surprising that the Pitt Rivers Museum, seen as the repository of 'foreign' and exotic material, also accumulated a sizeable English collection from its earliest years. ...

The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded by the donation of a collection from Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers which had set defining characteristics. The first, and best known of these, was that the artefacts were divided typologically, that is by the similar definition of function or form. The second characteristic of the early displays reflected the personal interests of the donor of the first collection, and of anthropology at that time—an interest in the evolution of technology and of people. It may be this latter characteristic which gives us a clue as to one of the potential uses of a large English collection: as a comparator, 'norm' or known starting point against which the products of more 'exotic' societies could be judged.

Pitt Rivers is thought to have begun to collect in the 1850s, when he served on ‘... the sub-committee of small arms at Woolwich in the experiments which led to the introduction of the rifle-musket into the army... and it occurred to [him] what an interesting thing it would be to have a museum in which all these successive stages of improvement might be placed in the order of their occurrence.’ [Pitt Rivers, 1891: 118-119] In other words, he became interested in collecting because of a particular technology or mass production process and design. Not at all coincidentally 1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition where the products of the new industrial age were laid out as an advertisement for the wealth and industry of the British nation and empire.

What was important to Pitt Rivers was the primitive-civilized axis or progression, rather than specific cultures (or points in history) per se. Thanks to Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer the later nineteenth century was obsessed with evolution and the origin of things and beings. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Pitt Rivers (and later Balfour) became interested in 'primitive' things (seeing them as nearer the origins). It did not really matter where the primitive things came from, indeed, the large European archaeological collections attest to the idea that if 'primitive' (ie technologically simple) things could be found near to home, so much the better, because they were easier to collect. For this reason strict provenance was not the first consideration.

Industrial products from England were the earliest beginnings of the founding collection, and could even be said to be its core. Amongst his overall collection were many artefacts from England and the rest of Europe. These included many modern items (especially weapons, food and fire related items, horse equipment etc) which had been created by industrial processes. A typical example might be this Naval boarding axe which is described as a 'Modern [that is, 19th century] English boarding axe. The spike is to fix into the ship's side in climbing the sides of a vessel' [1884.20.56] It may be that this collection of modern objects was a reflection of his view that modern English man was at the top of the human evolutionary scale. The collection of contemporary examples of firearm technology may have reinforced the Victorian English peoples' smug beliefs in their own technological superiority and standard-setting. Displays of weapons, like this one at his home in Rushmore, can be seen as quite literally the displays of the spoils of evolutionary war, a war which must have seemed to him to have been 'won' by his own culture and time.

The part of the founding collection from England (a total of 6,219 artefacts) are similar in composition to his European collection, dominated by archaeological artefacts, particularly pottery vessels and sherds and stone tools. However, he did collect some English items that can be defined as ethnographic [309 objects, 5 per cent of total]. ...There are several categories which reflect modern developments of technology in the nineteenth century including a number of firearms and firearm accessories  which represent 16 per cent of the ethnographic total. So far as can be judged the vast majority of these artefacts were manufactured in the nineteenth century, in other words clearly post Industrial Revolution.

The general tenor of the Pitt Rivers Museum was set by the founding donation. In fact it was a requirement of accepting the donation that the University of Oxford  agreed '... [t]hat the general mode of arrangement at present adopted in the Collection be maintained; ... any change in details to be made subsequently shall be such only as are necessitated by the advance of knowledge, and as do not affect the general principle originated by the donor. ... However, very little time elapsed after 1884 before the museum began to acquire new artefacts, change displays and generally move the Museum in new directions.  Most of this work for the next 50 years or more was led (and actioned) by Henry Balfour, the first Curator of the Museum. If Pitt Rivers had guided the collection up to 1884, it was Balfour who led it forward until 1939. His contribution to the museum is still to be felt and seen all around us. What was his attitude to industrial products?

Henry Balfour was an Oxford University-trained natural scientist who in October 1885 was asked by his old tutor, Henry Nottidge Moseley, to assist the unpacking and arranging of the ‘Pitt Rivers Anthropology Collection’ at the University Museum. This was the start of his career in the Museum which ended with his death in 1939, still at work, aged seventy-five. The initial work of unpacking and arranging took many years to complete, particularly as the founding collection was soon joined by transfers from the Ashmolean and Oxford University Museums.

Within a year or so of being in post, Balfour was not only passively accepting new acquisitions but also actively seeking them. The first new object that was accessioned by the Museum was an English iron arrow head found at Godstow, just outside Oxford city, donated by Henry Willett in July 1885. The first artefact definitely received from Henry Balfour into the collections was also an English artefact, a Davy safety lamp donated in April 1888. The first artefact known to have been actively acquired by the Museum was a Tibetan praying mill purchased from Gamlen in February 1888. The first English item to be purchased by the Museum was a watchman's rattle from Parker (a dealer) in Pembroke Street, Oxford in September 1889. Given that the first few years of the Museum's existence must have been busily occupied opening packing cases and arranging displays it is impressive that within a year of the founding collection being accepted by the University new English artefacts were being accessioned.

Balfour always carried out his own research, very little of which was published but some of which must have been disseminated in his series of lectures given to diploma students in the Museum. He had a holistic and accumulative attitude to research. His manuscript collection, held by the Pitt Rivers Museum, contains a cabinet whose drawers are stuffed with slips of paper, photographs, notes, sketches and letters referring to the use of objects or particular technologies. As Larson has documented, 'for Balfour, material culture, literature, photographs and first-hand observation were all equally essential, incontestable forms of evidence for cultural traditions, and, as far as his particular research interests were concerned, he collected all these forms of data unreservedly.' [pers. comm.]

Problems of space, staff and time never inhibited Henry Balfour either from carrying out his own research or from acquiring new artefacts. Among the objects that most interested him were several that, at least in England, had been, for some considerable time, made by industrial processes, including fire-making appliances, lighting and musical instruments. Balfour certainly acquired many objects which had been made at least partly by machine and using mass production methodology; a feature which does not seem to have deterred him from acquiring them. For example (like Pitt Rivers) he collected many firearms and other weapons and more random items such as safety pins used as small change. Balfour was not, therefore, adverse to collecting modern, Industrial Age artefacts including this set of Northumberland pipes. Indeed many of his ethnographic objects can be seen as modern, and some were definitely manufactured using industrial processes.

Balfour preferred facts to theory but, although he was not theoretically focussed, his early papers do show the influence both of the evolutionary approach to design traditions, popularized by General Pitt Rivers, and Balfour’s own training as a natural scientist specializing in animal morphology. Although he moved away from a purely evolutionary stance as his career progressed, he did not divorce himself completely from it and was certainly ill-at-ease with the theoretical position of other anthropologists employed by the University by the end of his career. Unlike Pitt Rivers, he never believed that there was a single historical line of development from the primitive to the civilized. For this reason he was as much interested in diffusion as evolution. As Larson has suggested [pers. comm.] the vast majority of his writings, 'took a single type of object – the bone skate (1898), the fire-piston (1907), or the fishing-kite (1913), for example – and laid out the evidence, found in the variations of physical form, for its geographical and historical distribution.'

One of his chief interests was in fire-making technologies, which he seems to have collected from early in his career. At first he seems to have concentrated on English, modern, items, perhaps because it was easier to acquire such objects in the small amount of leisure time he had available or because he had not yet gained the networks of connections that would allow him to obtain many ethnographic objects in the future. In 1888-9 he bought several bundles of sulphur matches from Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and tinder boxes from Guernsey and Surrey. He also acquired similar artefacts from Brittany and Norway which he visited in that year. This small number of fire-related objects grew eventually into a substantial collection, he eventually donated (or bequeathed) 488 English fire-related artefacts (over half of all the English fire-related items in the collections), and 1,759 acquired globally.

The relative strength of Balfour's European collections (54 per cent of his total collection) and the dominance of tinder boxes and matches within this (even within his English collections) show that he was just as interested in Western fire-making traditions as he was in more remote practices. As I have intimated before, it is probable that Balfour did not see cultural practices in a dualistic (civilized versus primitive) fashion but saw them as one unified, but diverse, history. It was therefore just as important for him to study English material culture as it was to analyse data from further afield. The need to make fire for survival purposes is universal for human beings and that ability distinguishes them from all other animals. To achieve survival through fire-making has been realized in many different ways over time and space. Looking at fire technology can not only show what is uniquely human but also what a variety of different design solutions there can be.

Whilst it is likely that Balfour acquired much of his fire-making collection himself, he did receive other things from a variety of friends and acquaintances. His interest was fostered by correspondence and collaboration with many other English collectors in the field (including Frederick William Robins, Miller Christy and Edward Bidwell). His early interest in fire technology was sparked by an interest (shared with Pitt Rivers) in the development of firearm technology, specifically the development of matchlock, wheel-lock and flint-lock guns.  His earliest acquisitions explored ignition techniques that were in daily use either currently or little more than fifty years earlier: the design of matches, lighters and tinder boxes. That Balfour began his collecting with this type of object, things that most British people took for granted during their everyday life, showed his wide-ranging interest in material culture and the everyday.

After Balfour's death in 1939 Penniman took over as Curator and was in post until 1963. His period at the helm was a strange one, he himself contributed little to the collections and from the accounts in the Annual Reports of the Museum seems to have devoted much of his time to improving maintenance of the Museum buildings and to preparing the two card catalogues with Blackwood. The only English objects he is directly associated with are two tape recordings of  masque performances at Ludlow Castle in 1958. He presumably encouraged some of the other English donations during his Curatorship particularly, perhaps, in the areas he was personally interested in; archaeology and musical instruments, particularly music boxes.

Perhaps the most interesting person to look at in regard to mass production is Beatrice Blackwood herself, given that her statement was the starting-point of this whole paper. She gave a total of 581 English ethnographic objects. A large number of these [268] were English schoolchildren's drawings (used for comparative purposes with similar drawings obtained by her in North America and Oceania). A significant proportion of the remaining artefacts (which are of many varied types) are nineteenth century or more recent, for example a pair of 19th century lorgonettes or this knife, one of a set of saddler's tools, obtained by her from Mr Lodder of Teynham, Kent. [1938.36.1888] Many of these objects are machine-made and probably mass-produced.

It is harder to assess and give an overview the general English collections acquired up to the present than it is to look specifically at Pitt Rivers', Balfour's or Blackwood's. It is even harder to identify all the items that were specifically mass produced or even machine-made from other entries in the museum's databases. There are a total of 12,844 English ethnographic objects which were not donated by Balfour or Pitt Rivers up to 2006, at least a third of these were obtained by 1945. Again the core groups of classes are prominent: fire-related material, weapons especially firearms, and lighting appliances. Of these many appear to be not historical but modern in origin. Relatively few items in the collections have dates of manufacture, so this will always be a supposition rather than a fact, but reviewing the entries suggests that significant numbers are clearly industrial in origin.

Conclusions to date

An obvious question to ask is: Why did or does the Pitt Rivers Museum acquire English artefacts, and specifically modern post-Industrial Revolution artefacts? As I intimated before they could obviously be used a comparison points for other, more exotic or archaeological, specimens. This is certainly how Balfour perceived at least part of their function as some items are specifically referred to as being accessioned for comparative purposes, for example:

1925.8.4 A 'modern English' double trepanning saw obtained for comparison with Algerian examples by Henry Balfour in 1925

or 1901.5.1 A wooden pin-block used by jewellers for filing pins, for comparison with bone pin blocks from London excavations

Maybe it is because other people associated with the Museum agree with Balfour and I that you cannot look at human beings and their material culture without seeing it in the round. To ignore the products of mass production is to ignore a significant and interesting part of the whole story. To present human artefacts as though all interest stopped at the start of the Industrial Revolution, or to concentrate only on modern craft products is to present a picture of a stagnant, non-modern, irrelevant collection.

People associated with the early history of the Museum seemed to have collected only particular kinds of industrial products; weapons, tools etc. They demonstrate an interest in how humans invented and refined particular and specific technologies to survive—how they invented things to warm, feed, and shelter themselves. In addition they also invented things that enabled their offspring to be educated, and to entertain. Hence the often used phrase 'arts and industries'. Our museum ancestors were not as interested in the kinds of mass production we think of today, the cheap clothing sold in department stores or plastic garden furniture or food tins. Indeed, today the museum sector still retains a somewhat dualistic attitude to industrial products and processes with some being deemed more interesting and worthy of study than others. It may be, therefore, that for Pitt Rivers and Balfour, and maybe for us too, technology—as a marker of human ingenuity—is the guiding principle of the collections.

Certainly it is clear that Balfour and Pitt Rivers were principally interested in ingenuity, in how the human mind discovers things, uses ideas, and how ideas spread and change. For this the development of the musket was as worthy of study as the development of kite-fishing. Frances Larson has suggested to me that maybe this is what mass production was seen to threaten by Blackwood and others. It seemed to sweep aside the supposedly 'natural' spread of technological ideas between people. Mass production could be perceived as 'forcing' things on everyone and threatening the smaller-scale creative and communicative processes. [Larson, pers. comm.]

In this world view, it is possible to think that mass production would ultimately reduce the diversity of different design solutions or technologies, the very things that Pitt Rivers, Balfour and Blackwood seemed to have been most interested in. In this way, their world view can be seen as being in contrast to today's belief in market forces. It was the need to record this diversity of ideas, rather than a deep interest in the objects per se that might have driven their collecting. In their view they might have been undertaking a form of salvage ethnographic collecting in their own country.

However, just as salvage ethnography is today seen as having been an over-reaction to the changing political and ethnic global realities, this collection of different technological solutions before their destruction by mass production seems, to my eyes at least, as over hasty. Globalisation is still more an 'ideal' than a reality in most sectors, and many countries seek separate industrial solutions to problems. One has only to travel over the Channel to discover the truth of this and looking at medical technology (as an example) shows that relatively little technology and solutions cross political borders even today. To be facetious even mass produced objects vary a little from sample to sample as any quality controller will tell you, and hand-made goods can be made in large, identical, numbers as any visit to a craft pottery will show.

I believe that the Pitt Rivers Museum should celebrate 'human ingenuity and creative skill' in all its aspects and that this should include some artefacts that are indisputably the results of mass or industrial production because these are as much a product of human talent as any hand-made item. I believe that the function of a museum like this is to illustrate how humans, over time and space, have found differing technological solutions to common human problems. As the entire world becomes industrialized, if ethnographic museums do not accept and accommodate industrial processes they will stagnate and wither. The future for us, as with China in the 'real world', is to accept the modern, or die.


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AP, April 2007.

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