Baldwin Spencer, and Henrys Balfour Moseley and Acland in the University Museum [1998.267.85]

Henry Balfour (1863-1939) was appointed to work as an assistant to Henry Nottidge Moseley (the first 'curator' of the Pitt Rivers Museum) in 1885 as the Pitt-Rivers founding collection first transferred from London to Oxford. He was appointed Curator himself in 1890 and stayed in post until his death in 1939 at the age of seventy-six.

It is not clear when Henry Balfour first met Pitt-Rivers but he must have known of him before he started work at the new Pitt-Rivers collection at the University Museum, University of Oxford.

One of the people who helped to move the collection from London to Oxford later became one of the most famous Australian anthropologists, Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860 - 1929). In June 1885 Spencer was recruited by Moseley to help with the move of the Pitt Rivers Collection from London. 'Spencer estimated that there were some 15,000 items, "and as each of them required labelling a considerable work has to be done. The Government people are removing it ... but we can't trust them to do the labelling ... We three began in the mornings and go on till 5.30 with only a short break for lunch. However, it is rather interesting, if tiring work: Tylor himself is of course the best anthropologist in England and a very nice man indeed."' [Mulvaney, 1985: 60][

.... it was the old Pitt Rivers collection that first gave me my real interest in Anthropology. It was, I think, in 1884 or 5 that Moseley asked me if I would spend the vacation in helping to pack up the collection which was then housed at South Kensington. I did a great deal of the packing up and it was intensely interesting to have Moseley and Tylor coming in and hear them talking about things. [PRM Archives, Spencer papers, Box IV: letter 21, 24 September 1920]

As Mulvaney comments:

'The move occupied Moseley, Tylor and Spencer for over four weeks. It is generally believed that Henry Balfour assisted them, but Spencer's letters are explicit that only 3 persons were involved. Once the collection reached Oxford, however, it had to be inspected and placed in the new museum. Although Spencer did not refer to these further duties, he must have assisted with them. A decade later, during his wordy disagreement with Lankester, Tylor wrote that Spencer and Balfour were given the Keeper's room in the University Museum while they handled the collection - and they 'used the room for a long time'. [Mulvaney, 1985: 60]

Henry Balfour in the upper gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford [1998.267.94.4]

In 1885 Balfour completed his natural science degree at Trinity College, Oxford (he was awarded a second class degree) and was invited by Moseley to assist him in arranging and labelling the Pitt Rivers collection for a year. Balfour agreed and received a stipend of about £100 a year. Since the new building had still not been completed, Balfour would probably have begun his work within the University Museum where Moseley was based. At this point, the collection was not open to the public. The duties that Balfour would have undertaken were explained by Moseley:

‘It would be pretty hard work of all sorts making little drawings, writing and typing out very neat labels, writing catalogue descriptions, arranging things in cases, mending and batching and cleaning, helping a carpenter fix things on screens, looking up objects of all kinds in illustrated books, Cooks travels etc.’ [11 October 1885: PRM, foundation volume]

Penniman (a later curator of the Museum) certainly believed that Balfour was involved from the start, but it seems more likely that Mulvaney was correct and Moseley used his first assistant to start the process of movement and his second to organize the displays at Oxford. [Penniman, 1953, 12] According to Balfour in an unposted letter to Pitt Rivers dated 2 December 1890 actual arrangement of the displays did not begin until ‘some time after the year (1886) had turned’. [quoted in Chapman, 1981: 682]

Pitt Rivers was in touch sporadically with Acland, Hatchett Jackson and Balfour during 1887 and 1888 (see PRM foundation volume and OUMNH papers). For example, Henry Acland (of the University Museum) wrote to Pitt Rivers asking his advice about Balfour’s future following Moseley’s illness in October 1887. Since Acland did not want to disturb Moseley with the issue, he asked whether Pitt-Rivers would have any objection to the University guaranteeing to keep Balfour on for a further 3 years (OUMNH, 1885/1, box 2). Since Moseley’s illness in 1887, Balfour had taken full charge of the project of unpacking and arranging the collections at the University Museum.

Balfour earned £100 a year when he started, rising to £150 in 1886 (a large rise, so he must have been working very hard). However, his position was temporary and it was not made permanent (or at least renewably 'permanent') until 1890 when he was finally appointed Curator replacing Moseley who was ill from 1887 and who would die in 1891.

Balfour's relationship with Pitt-Rivers was not straight forward. Balfour's natural desire to make his mark in his new field was met with some displeasure by Pitt-Rivers who seemed to feel that Balfour should concentrate on preparing the new displays at Oxford and not step on his toes by publishing about the founding collection before he had been able to. With the intervention of very senior members of the University this spat blew over and for the remainder of Pitt-Rivers' life their relationship seems to have been cordial. Frequent references throughout this site to Balfour will show the way that the two men were enmeshed in joint service to the Pitt-Rivers founding collection. If you want to know more about the spat please consult the foundation volume of the Pitt Rivers Museum held by the museum's manuscript collection.

Henry Balfour in later life [1998.356.17.1]

Balfour remained for the rest of his working life at the Pitt Rivers Museum, evolving his own network of collaborators, researchers and field collectors. Being asked to help assist Moseley was a life-changing event for him, before it happened he might have expected to spend his days in the academic study of natural history, afterwards his professional interests never left anthropology and archaeology and the Pitt Rivers Museum can truly be said to have been his life.

Find out more about his correspondence here.

Bibliography for this article

Balfour, Henry. 1893. 'The Evolution of Decorative Art: An essay upon its origin and development as illustrated by the art of modern races of mankind. London: Rivington, Percival and Co.

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.

Gosden, C., Larson, F. and Petch, A. 2007 [a] 'Origins and Survivals - Tylor, Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum and their role within anthropology in Oxford 1883 - 1905' in P. Riviére [ed.]A History of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Berghahn

Gosden, C., Larson, F. with Petch, A. 2007 [b] Knowing Things: Exploring the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945 Oxford University Press

Mulvaney, D.J & J.H. Calaby 1985 So Much that is New: Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) Melbourne University Press

Penniman, T.K. 1965/1974. A Hundred Years of Anthropology. William Morrow London UK

Petch, Alison. 1996. 'Weapons and the 'Museum of Museums' Journal of Museum Ethnography, vol. 8 [May 1996] pp. 11-22

Petch, Alison. 2001. ‘Assembling and Arranging: The Pitt Rivers’ Collections, 1850–2001’, in Anthony Shelton (ed.),Collectors: Individuals and Institutions, London: Horniman Museum, pp. 239–52.

Petch, Alison. 2007. 'Notes and Queries and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Museum Anthropology vol30 no. 1 Spring 2007: pp. 21-39

Petch, Alison. 2009. 'Opening the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 19 pp. 101-112 [PDF]

AP, April 2011

prm logo