Photographs have always played an important role in the Pitt Rivers Museum, both as part of its displays as well as a research and teaching resource. Actively collected since the Museum’s foundation, a distinct curatorial department was established in the early 1980s in response to the growth in both the collection as well as academic interest in visual resources. Perhaps surprisingly, the photographs in Pitt-Rivers’ own collection had been little researched before the current ‘Re-thinking’ project provided the intellectual impetus to do so in a systematic way.
We have one eyewitness account of the manner in which photographs were exhibited by Pitt-Rivers before the transfer of his collection to Oxford in 1885. It comes in an anonymous article in Nature in Sept 1880, when the collection was on display at the South Kensington Museum (SKM):
‘The collection may be considered as consisting of three parts. Firstly, a collection of the various races of mankind which is not as yet far advanced, though it contains large and instructive series of portraits of Danes, Scandinavians, the people of Brittany, and Japanese; whilst together with the photographs is a small series of those skulls which show the best marked racial characteristics…’. (Anon, Nature 23 Sept 1880)
Although the reviewer states that there were three parts to the collection, he then goes on to describe four. The second section dealt with weaponry (with a detailed catalogue), the third with ‘musical instruments, ornaments, sculpture, painting and artistic design of all kinds’, and fourthly ‘those which relate to the development of implements, utensils, houses, ships, machines, and strictly useful appliances of all kinds’ (Anon 1880: 490–1)
From the receipts given by the SKM to Pitt-Rivers (known in the PRM as the ‘Green Book’), we know that he deposited the following photographs:
- May 1879 – 300 Brittany and Normandy cartes-de-visite [Not in PRM]
- Sept 1879 – 468 Scandinavian and German cartes-de-visite [315 now in PRM]
- Sept 1879 – 58 Photographs acquired from the Godeffroy Museum, Hamburg (Oceania and Australia) [NB total attributed to this source is now 72]
- Sept 1879 – 45 Japanese / Chinese photographs [32 currently identified in PRM]
Also on display were a number of photographs of the Andaman and Nicobar Islanders sent by E. H. Man, mostly between 1878 and 1882.
The dates of deposit at SKM are significant. Lane Fox had visited Normandy alone in late 1878 and early 1879 (Thompson, 1977: 125) and appears to have made this large collection of cartes-de-visite during one or both of these trips. In August 1879 he and his close friend George Rolleston journeyed together to Scandinavia – according to Tylor ‘to see museums and universities’ (Tylor 1884: lxi) – and by examining the locations associated with the photographs and objects subsequently collected, would appear to have gone as far north as Uppsala in Sweden, and via the Godeffroy Museum in Hamburg (see separate article on the Lane Fox/ Rolleston 1879 journey and map).
The fact that Pitt-Rivers deposited the bulk of his photograph collections at the SKM during one year, 1879, is significant. Given what we know about the way in which the collection was organized at SKM, it can only be assumed at present that the transfer of his collection from Bethnal Green to SKM presented Pitt-Rivers with the opportunity to develop certain areas of his displays, and that the physical anthropology (‘the various races of mankind’) section was to be heavily augmented by photographic illustration. Some of the Godeffroy material, for instance, is of an anthropometric nature, indicating Pitt-Rivers' didactic purpose. Whilst the large numbers of cartes-de-visite are far from being ‘scientific’ photographs – from a nineteenth century perspective – it is possible that the repetition of a large number of such portraits was considered sufficient to generalize, especially about skull shape and other physical characteristics.
The delivery catalogue drawn up at the time of the transfer of the collection from SKM to Oxford in 1885 mentions most of the material deposited by Lane Fox in 1879, and includes interesting additional information about their mounting, for instance ‘Case/screen 362: 56 photographs of South Sea Islanders on 3 mounts’. The 300 cartes-de-visite from Brittany and Normandy are not mentioned in the Delivery Catalogue, and have not been located in the PRM, and so must be assumed never to have been transferred to Oxford. They may have been removed by Pitt-Rivers to compliment displays at his new museum at Farnham, and may have been used to supplement the displays in Room 1 or Room 2 there.
We know extremely little about the biography of these photographs after their transfer to Oxford in 1885. Indeed, much of the collection as outlined above was only identified as being from the founding collection as a result of this research, including the large collection of Scandinavian and German cartes-de-visite, and the Japanese and Chinese prints. The Oceania and Australia prints had previously been assumed to be from the Godeffroy Museum via Pitt-Rivers, but this was only confirmed recently by comparing the photographs with the Godeffroy catalogue descriptions (Schmeltz and R. Krause, 1881) as well as those reproduced in the Godeffroy publication of its Oceania photographs (Süd-see Typen, 1881).
It seems clear that most of the photographs were removed from their SKM mounts either in preparation for their transfer to Oxford or soon after, such as the Scandinavian and German cartes-de-visite. Henry Balfour remounted many of the prints during his 1931-2 project on the PRM photograph collections, and placed them in the geographical series. The cartes-de-visite remained loose, with traces on glue on their reverse suggesting their original fixture to mounts at the SKM.
Early photographs of the PRM displays do show a variety of pictures, such as paintings and lithographs, on display at the east end of the Lower Gallery, many or most of which are from the founding collection. But evidence of whether any of the photographs discussed here were also displayed is lacking. Possibly the physical anthropology section in which they were displayed at SKM, in conjunction with human remains, was impossible to replicate in the PRM, and so their specific didactic function and context was lost. They may have at this point been stored away by Balfour for future reference and research, something that presumably was not realized until his archival project in the 1930s (Edwards & Hart 2004, Morton forthcoming).
One of the most tantalising aspects of the current research into this collection was the discovery of handwritten numbers on the backs of the Scandinavian and German cartes-de-visite, identifying them as belonging to one of 12 groupings, and then giving them a number sequence within that grouping. Curiously, no items labeled Group 1 survive, meaning that the extant prints form Groups 2 to 12. Whatever the fate of Group 1, it seems to have been removed before the transfer to Oxford, since the Delivery Catalogue states: ‘Case/screen 362: 318 photographs of natives of Scandinavia on 11 mounts’ (315 have been found in the PRM).By assembling the prints into these 11 groups, and arranging them roughly in numerical order, an impression may be gained of their original display in SKM around 1880 (see links below). All collected from commercial studios, the cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards represent a mixture of anonymous individuals, as well as local notables such as academics, clerics and politicians, as well as well-known actors and writers (such as Hans Christian Anderson in Group 8). How closely these groupings resemble their original display we shall probably never know.
[Gallery of photographs from this collection forthcoming]
Christopher Morton, April 2011.
I am grateful to Dr Thomas Theye of Bremen for his help and generous assistance towards this research, as well as Jane Lydon of Monash University, Australia. Earlier work by Alison Petch of the Pitt Rivers Museum on the early catalogues of the PRM has also proved invaluable.
Bibliography for this article
Anon, 1880. General Pitt Rivers’ (Lane Fox) anthropological collection, Nature, Sept 23, 489–93; Sept 30, 511–14.
Edwards, E. and J. Hart. 2004. Mixed box: the cultural biography of a box of ‘ethnographic’ photographs, In Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (eds) Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London and New York: Routledge, 47–61.
Morton, C. (forthcoming). ‘Photography and the Comparative Method: the Construction of an Anthropological Archive’.
J.D.E. Schmeltz and R. Krause, 1881. Verzeichniss der Photographien in Die Ethnographisch-Anthropologische Abtheilung des Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg: Ein beitrag zur kunde der sudsee-volker.
Süd-see Typen. Anthropologisches Album des Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg, Hamburg: L. Friederichsen & Co. 1881.
Sumner, R. 1986. Photographs of aborigines of north-east Australia: a collection of early Queensland aboriginal photographs, made by Amalie Dietrich for the Museum Godeffroy, Aboriginal History, Vol. 10, 157–70.
Theye, T. 2004. “… ein Blick Für alles Bemerkenswerthe …” – Einige wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Aspekte der Queensland-Photographien Amalie Dietrichs in der anthropologischen Sammlung des Museum Godeffroy’, Jahrbuch des Museums Für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Band XLII.
Thompson, M.W. 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press.
Tylor, E.B., 1884. ‘Life of George Rolleston’ in Scientific Papers and Addresses by George Rolleston, edited by William Turner. Oxford: Clarendon Press.