'Everything which goes into a collection of whatever kind has done so as a result of selection. The selection process is the crucial act of the collector ...' [Pearce, 1992: 38]

Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford looking east. 1998.267.262.6

The Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford was founded in 1884 when around 22830 [1] ethnographic and archaeological objects were donated by Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers to the University. These formed the founding collection of a museum which today consists of at least half a million artefacts, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world and from all periods of history.

To find out more about the early history of Pitt-Rivers' collection see here.

The University of Oxford had insisted the founding collection be donated rather than loaned which meant that Pitt-Rivers' involvement with his collection at Oxford formally ceased in 1884 when the University took over legal ownership. He may have intended to retain an active interest in the collection but in fact he visited the city only a few times after 1884, and gave only one formal lecture there in 1891—by which time the staff at the Museum had managed to get most of the founding collection artefacts installed and the museum open to the public. [Petch, 2007] In 1898 Pitt-Rivers complained to the then President of the Royal Anthropological Institute:

Oxford was not the place for [my collection] and I should never have given it there if I had not been ill at the time and anxious to find a resting place for [it] of some kind in the future. I have always regretted it, and my new museum at Farnham, Dorset represents my views on the subject much better. [Pitt-Rivers to F.W. Rudler 23.5.1898 L2096a Salisbury and South Wilts Museum Pitt-Rivers Correspondence]

It is clear that because the University was slow to transfer the collections from South Kensington Museum, those museum authorities in the end lost patience and moved the collection into a storage area. Once the items had been transferred to Oxford they were moved to a variety of storage spaces whilst the University staff worked on creating the new displays for the Museum. Though South Kensington Museum had transferred many of the original display material it is clear that the collection became very confused, objects lost labels. Pitt-Rivers complains that the transfer took such a long time, and that the museum was not fully open until 1891, five years after transfer from London. Henry Balfour makes it clear that this was not his fault, he had to reconstruct series; label, catalogue, and arrange the series for the new museum. It is clear, therefore, that the displays Pitt-Rivers had arranged at Bethnal Green and South Kensington Museums were never duplicated in Oxford but that the displays in their new location were different, rearranged and augmented by new objects. [See correspondence from Pitt-Rivers and Balfour held in the PRM manuscript collections, and University Archives [University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3] On 30 April 1891 Pitt-Rivers gave the only formal lecture he presented at the University of Oxford (the closest event that the Pitt Rivers Museum had to an opening ceremony) entitled 'The Original Collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum: its principles of arrangement and history in the 'Museum Theatre' of the University Museum. [Oxford University Gazette XXI:414]

If you wish to find out more about the early history of the Pitt Rivers Museum and its founding collection please see the full Bibliography on the right hand menu of this website.

Bibliography for this article

Blackwood, B. 1970. ‘The Origin and Development of the Pitt-Rivers Museum’ in The Classification of Artefacts in the Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford. Occasional Papers on Technology, II, Oxford: Pitt-Rivers Museum

Petch, Alison. 1998.‘‘Man as he was and Man as he is’: General Pitt-Rivers’ collections’ Journal of the History of Collections10 no. 1 (1998) pp. 75-85 Oxford University Press

Petch, Alison. 2002.‘Assembling and Arranging: Pitt-Rivers’ collections from 1850 to now’ in 'Collectors: Expressions of Self and Other Occasional Papers Series: Horniman Museum and Museu Antropologico of the University of Coimbra

Petch, Alison. 2006 'Chance and Certitude: Pitt-Rivers and his first collection' Journal of the History of Collecting 18 no. 2 pp. 57-266 Oxford University Press

Petch, Alison. 2007. 'Opening the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 19 pp. 101-112

AP, 2010; updated February 2013


[1] Based on accurate count of founding collection items on 22 February 2013, this figure is likely to continue to rise over 2013 as the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project continues to accession found unentered founding collection items.

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