The Pitt Rivers Museum in February 1887

[The Times, 7 February 1887 page 4, issue 31989]

The Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford

The collection of objects presented to the University of Oxford by General Pitt-Rivers has now been partially arranged, and is thrown open to visitors in the large and convenient hall which has been erected for it by the University. To these objects have been added many others transferred from other sources. The Ashmolean Museum has thus been enabled to become a scientific collection with a specific character, instead of a mere gathering of relics and rarities. The Pitt-Rivers collection belongs to the department under the charge of Professor Moseley, F.R.S., who is superintending its arrangement on the lines laid down by its founder. The essential quality of the museum lies even more in its arrangement than in the value and beauty of the objects exhibited, great as these may be. It is not a cabinet of curiosities, but a school of development, in which series of objects are set in order to teach the lessons of how they came to be. The manner in which the collection itself came into existence was this. Many years ago, when the British Army was giving up the Tower musket fro the new rifle, Colonel Lane Fox (who has since taken the surname of Pitt-Rivers) was officially engaged in inquiries as to the most efficient forms of guns, and was thus brought to see that these are not invented suddenly and all of a piece, but arise from successive partial alterations, whose history is soon forgotten as they are absorbed in the general course of progress. Struck by this practical point, he set to collecting weapons of all ages and all nations, and soon satisfied himself that the principle of gradual development, suggested step by step by what had preceded, runs through their whole history from the rudest stages, and pervades in like manner the whole history of civilization. Thus was started his vast museum illustrative of the stages of human arts and ideas, which soon outgrew the dimensions of a private house, and after some years, finding a temporary home in the exhibition buildings of Bethnal-green and South Kensington, has now, in a much expanded state, been presented to the University of Oxford, who have built for it the spacious and well-lighted annexe opening out from the main court of the University Museum.

The importance of the collection as a teaching instrument, framing for the student new and rational ideas of culture-history, impresses itself at once upon the spectator's mind. At one end are cases of musical instruments, showing their first rude beginnings leading up to their highest forms. The strung bow of the hunter, to which in South Africa a calabash is fixed as a resonator, shows the primary form to which all the stringed instruments of the orchestra may be traced back. Looking at the intermediate stages, we see, for example, how the harp of ancient Egypt and modern Burmah is but a great bow still. So the hollowed log, struck on its resounding lip by the festive Fijian, led on to the bell, which in its early form was clapperless, and which in Japan may still be seen of wood. Passing to the next group of cases, a series of models, from the rudest "dug-out" of the savage to the three-decker of the Trafalgar period, displays the successive lines of development leading on to modern navigation. Each class of boat has its history--the Esquimaux skin canoe and the Ojibwa bark canoe (both familiar to the visitor to Oxford from their imitations paddled on the river), the coracle belonging alike to the rivers of ancient Babylon and modern Wales, the galleys which were Mediterranean war craft from the ages of the Pharaohs till Lord Exmouth bombarded Algiers. Parts of the modern ship, such as the masthead and the forecastle, have their original types depicted in the tombs of Egypt from the vessels that floated on the Nile. Among the most instructive of General Pitt-Rivers's series is one which early engaged his attention, relating to the development of the shield. If asked the question how the Roman soldier came to ensconce himself behind his huge buckler, one would be apt to take it as a matter of course that a shield was always intended for a screen. But the real course of human invention, as shown by the facts, does not always correspond with probable guesses, and it is here seen that the defence of the rude Australian or African was no screen, but a narrow weapon, little more than a parrying stick, grasped in the middle, wherewith, by mere dexterity of fence, he held himself unharmed under a shower of spears. The parrying shield lasted on into modern civilized warfare, represented even by the Highland target, whose value as a defence was due to its bearer's quick eye and ready hand. Thus it appears that the use of the shield for shelter did not belong to its first purpose, but was due to special development of an earlier and nobler weapon. To go through the endless trains of reasoning of this kind illustrated in this one museum court would be to attempt prematurely a descriptive catalogue. But we cannot pass unnoticed a remarkable instance of the mode in which conservative ceremonial rites have preserved the traces of ancient low culture. Close by the Fire series, where sticks, with their charred points and holes, show the savage mode of kindling fire by friction of wood, there stands the sacred fire-drill, still used in India by the priest to "churn" the sacrificial fire--a rude, archaic instrument, kept up by Hindoos from the remote ages, when their ruder Vedic ancestors had this as their ordinary means of kindling fire of the domestic hearth. Nor is it the industrial arts alone whose rise and progress can thus be followed by the aid of series of specimens. The history of ornamental art shows itself especially amenable to the same treatment as in those brought together by General Pitt-Rivers to show how the figures of men and animals may, by successive stages of breaking down, pass into mere decorative patterns, or how the net or basket originally fitted on to the gourd or earthen pot has, when discontinued, left behind it an ornamental pattern drawn on the vessel it would once have really supported. Among the Cyprus pottery (part of the famous Cesnola collections) such history is apparent in the patterns derived from memory of former rush bands or concentric rings, which were suggested by the lathe-marks left on turned wooden vessels. In short, wherever the visitor turns he finds that what he used to set down to arbitrary fancy, to spontaneous genius, is really some particular stage in a course of growth or development sprung plainly and intelligibly from the stage behind it, and ready to serve in its turn as the starting-ground for new ideas and inventions to come.

Transcribed by Alison Petch August 2015.

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