The age in which we live is not more remarkable for rapid onward movement than for its intelligent retrospect of the past. It is reconstructive as well as progressive. The light which is kindled by the practical discoveries of modern science, throws back its rays upon the past and enables us to distinguish objects of interest, which have been unnoticed in the gloom of bygone ages or passed over with contempt. [From one of the drafts of 'Primitive Warfare', P17 S&SWM PR papers ]

Pitt-Rivers published quite a few articles and papers which mentioned his collections and collecting, here is a summary of his words.

Perhaps his definitive statement was in 1874 at the opening of the display of his loaned collection at Bethnal Green Museum:

The collection ... has been collected during upwards of twenty years, not for the purpose of surprising any one, ... but solely with a view to instruction. For this purpose ordinary and typical specimens, rather than rare objects, have been selected and arranged in sequence, ... The classification of natural history specimens has long been a recognized necessity in the arrangement of every museum which professes to impart useful information, but ethnological specimens have not generally been thought capable of anything more than a geographical arrangement. This arises mainly from sociology not having until recently been recognized as a science, if indeed it can be said to be so regarded by the public generally at the present time. Travellers, as a rule, have not yet embraced the idea, and consequently the specimens in our museums, not having been systematically collected, cannot be scientifically arranged. ... Unlike natural history specimens, which have for years past been selected with a view to variety, affinity, and sequence, these ethnological curiosities, ... have been chosen without any regard to their history or psychology, and, although they would be none the less valuable for having been collected without influence from the bias of preconceived theories, yet, not being supposed capable of any scientific interpretation, they have not been obtained in sufficient number or variety to render classification possible. This does not apply with the same force to collections of prehistoric objects, which during the last ten or fifteen years have received better treatment. It is to the arts and implements of modern savages that my remarks chiefly relate. Since the year 1852 I have endeavoured to supply this want by selecting from amongst the commoner class of objects which have been brought to this country those which appeared to show connection of form. Whenever missing links have been found they have been added to the collection, and the result has been to establish, however imperfectly, sequence in several series.’ [Pitt Rivers, ‘On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection, now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 4 (1875) 293-308 [read at the special meeting of the Institute held at Bethnal Green Museum on 1st July 1874 on the occasion of the opening of the collection to the public, p1-2]]

The start of his collection:

We know that he collected a model of a bridge which he gave to the Royal United Service Institution, as recorded in the Annual Report of 1850. It is likely that he had collected other items by this point but no evidence for them has yet been found. He gave several different accounts of the early beginnings of his first collection. According to his publication on Primitive Locks and Keys (1883), Lane Fox began collecting locks and keys in 1851: ‘The materials for this paper, together with the rest of the Museum, have been in course of Collection since the year 1851, and some of the specimens illustrated have been exhibited to the public at Bethnal Green Museum and South Kensington for some years’. [Pitt-Rivers, 1883: title page]

However, in a letter to a colleague, Augustus Wollaston Franks (dated 27 June 1880) he suggests that he had been collecting for 28 years, which would take his start date back to 1852. There is confirmation of this broad date in his catalogue of the displays at Bethnal Green:

Since 1852 I have endeavoured to overcome [the difficulty of having insufficient ethnological curiosities for classification] by selecting from among the commoner class of objects which have been brought to this country those which appeared to show connexion in form.’ [Lane Fox, 1877: xii]

In his account in 1891 to the Royal Society of Arts he confirmed the early 1850s as the start date and gave an indication of the motivation behind his early collecting:

‘… the sub-committee of small arms at Woolwich in the experiments which led to the introduction of the rifle-musket into the army. A large number of inventions were submitted to the committee for trial; and I was then led to take notice of the very slight changes of system that were embodied in the different inventions, and also of the fact that many improvements which, not being of a nature to be adopted, fell out of use, and were heard of no more, nevertheless served as suggestions for further improvements which were adopted; and it occurred to me 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. I made a collection of arms at that time, which was the foundation of the present museum. Although this collection of arms was not a very good one, as my means of collecting were small, it led to a museum of savage weapons, and ultimately of various other arts, which were exhibited at Bethnal-green [sic] and South Kensington for nine years.' [1891: 118-119]

Pitt-Rivers' account of acquiring a specific object:

‘When at Thebes, in March 1881, I heard that an ancient Egyptian boomerang had been sold to Dr Pinkerton, who was at that time living on board a Dahbeeah in the river. I made several inquiries about it, but failed to elicit any further particulars and not having the pleasure of Dr Pinkerton’s acquaintance, I subsequently forgot all about it. About a month ago I received a letter from Mr Samson Gemmel, of Glasgow, informing me that a friend of his, without mentioning his name, had lately died, and left me a boomerang. Thinking it was probably an Australian boomerang, of which I had already a sufficient number in my collection, I wrote thanking him for the present, and again the matter escaped my memory until within the last few days, when a parcel arrived which I opened and to my surprise and satisfaction I found that it contained the rare and valuable specimen of an ancient Egyptian boomerang ... I at once recognized it by the wood, its form, and its peculiar ornamentation, which exactly resembled two others which I had seen and drawn, and which had been lately added to the British Museum. I therefore wrote to Mr Gemmel for further particulars, and he in reply informed me that the friend referred to was Dr Pinkerton, who, before his death, had included amongst his last requests the desire that the weapon in question, which he had obtained at Thebes about the time I have mentioned, should be added to my collection. At the same time that this weapon was procured at Thebes, the two others mentioned above were obtained, probably from the same tomb, and haves found their way, through Mr Greville Chester, into the British Museum. ... I think that all three must have come from the great find of antiquities recently discovered at Thebes ...’ [Pitt Rivers, ‘On the Egyptian boomerang and its Affinities’ JAI 12 (1883) 454-463, p1-2]

This is the only detailed account Pitt-Rivers published of this kind of event.

How did Pitt-Rivers check information that came with objects, and how did he say he spotted fakes?

‘In all cases when sections are given, I took particular care to test the accuracy of the statements of the workmen as to the exact positions of the implements, and I have no doubt of their correctness in each case. Shortly after I commenced my visits to Acton, some rather ingenious attempts at forgery were foisted upon me, by chipping, varnishing, and, when dry, burying the flints thus prepared in the ground; but upon my pointing out at once to the workmen the precise manner in which each chip had been made, the recent character of the whole, the varnishing, the burying, and the economy of time and labour which might be effected by looking for the real implements when at work in the gravel, instead of wasting so much time over very imperfect imitations, they at once saw that it was impossible to deceive me, and I never afterwards found any attempt made to impose upon me.’ [‘On the discovery of Palaeolithic Implements in Association with Elephas Primigenius in the gravels of the Thames Valley at Acton’ Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 28, November 1872 p458-9]

Despite this account, Bowden relates that Pitt-Rivers was fooled some of the time. [1991: 74-5]

The cost of his collection:

‘... I can ... say that my museum was formed at a time when my means of collecting were very small, and that it never cost me more than £300 a year at most.’ [Pitt Rivers, 1884a Dorchester address: 8]

‘I have confined myself mainly to common forms in which chiefly continuity can be traced, and have avoided giving large sums for rare things because such things do not fit into my series generally.’ [Pitt Rivers to A.W. Franks, letter dated 27 June 1880 [Pitt Rivers Museum Foundation Box, Folio 3-4.Manuscript Collections, Pitt Rivers Museum]]

Bibliography for this article

Fox, A.H. Lane 1875. ‘On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection, now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 4 (1875) 293-308

Fox, A.H. Lane 1877. Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 Parts I and II. London, Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education HMSO [Re-issued 1879]

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. ‘1883 On the Egyptian boomerang and its affinities’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute 12 [1883] pp. 454-463

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1884 Address delivered at the Opening of the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester January 7 1884. J Foster Dorchester, UK

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1891 'Typological Museums, as exemplified by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and his provincial museum in Farnham, Dorset' Journal of the Society of Arts 40 [1891] pp. 115-122

AP, May 2011

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