Opening Dorset County Museum

Inaugural Address, 7 January 1884

This was published in Dorchester by J. Foster in 1884.

I have been asked to make a few remarks on this occasion; and I would supplement what Lord Shaftesbury has just said by saying that all those who are interested in this undertaking will be pleased to see the promotion of Museums included among the many good works for which his lordship is famous. (Applause.) General Pitt-Rivers then proceeded to deliver his Inaugural Address as follows:-

I cannot do better perhaps than state briefly the result of my own experience in Museum work. For more than thirty years a good deal of my time has been employed in getting together a Museum intended to illustrate the development of the arts of life. During this time I have had opportunities of conversing with scientific men and ascertaining their views on the subject of Museums, and of observing the effect of my own arrangement in rendering the objects of the Museum comprehensible to the public. The remarks which I have to make may be divided under two heads, embracing the two principal functions which a Local Museum may be expected to serve. Firstly, its utility in subordination to the interests of science in general as a means of aiding scientific men in their researches, and secondly, its utility as a means of instruction in the town or district in which it is established. All museum space is necessarily limited, and ... the attention of the curators will have to be drawn, not merely to the collection of useful specimens, but quite as much to the exclusion of objects which serve neither of the two purposes which I have named. I speak, I am sorry to say, in ignorance of what this Museum actually does contain, and therefore my observations must be considered to refer to local museums in general rather than to this Museum in particular. But I am certain that unless a hard and fast line is drawn from the commencement for the guidance of those who are in charge of the collections, local influence will be put upon them to fill your valuable space with things that are of more interest to the donors either to preserve or to get rid of, than of value to the public or for any scientific purpose. It is of such miscellaneous collections that local museums usually consist, and it is in order to avoid falling into this dilemma that I understand it to be the wish of the Council that my remarks should be directed.

Speaking then, firstly, of the uses of a local museum in subordination to the interests of science, it is obvious that the collections should be confined to things which emanate from the particular district in which the museum is situated. It is the chief work of scientific men to trace out the varieties and distribution, either of species or breeds in natural history, or of phases in the primitive arts of human life, and for such a purpose a local museum should be such a one as they can come to with the certainty of finding the particular specimens for which the district is peculiar. The work of collecting materials for scientific generalisation is enormous, far beyond the possibilities of any single individual, and a local museum should therefore take a definite place in the division of labour which the necessity of science demand. How large an area should be represented in any one museum should depend, in my opinion, rather upon the vicinity of other equally well organised museums than upon territorial or political divisions. I am unable in the short time allotted to me to do more than briefly indicate my meaning by examples. Thus, for instance, it is for specimens from the chalk, greensand, oolite, and upper tertiary formations that geologists would naturally look to Dorchester rather than for specimens of primary and other rocks that are foreign to the district. In generalizing upon the flora of the country, the botanist would turn to the Dorchester district for specimens of those plants which Mr. Mansel-Pleydell has so well catalogued and described, whilst the pre-historic archaeologist would expect to find in the local museum the relics and perhaps models of those antiquities of the district to the knowledge of which Mr. Warne has been so laborious and successful a contributor. Nor would I exclude from a local museum specimens of modern industry, or even relics and memorials of distinguished men, provided always they are local and typical. But it is evident from the very nature of a local museum as thus arranged, that it cannot suffice for the purposes of general scientific education. Its collections, being partial and limited to one district, tell only a small part of the story of each race or species, and fail entirely to present to the student those lessons of evolution and continuous development which it is the chief object of scientific training to inculcate. I would suggest, therefore, that to remedy this defect and render the museum an effective instrument of education in its own district, the local collections should be supplemented by educational series, in which the development of each subject, by they one or many, should be traced up continuously from their commencement and include all the varieties that are to be found in different parts of the world, and I would propose that when several series of such subjects can be accommodated, they should consist partly of natural history series and partly of series showing the development of the arts of life, by which means the analogy which exists between the evolution of species and the progress of human arts and institutions, into which the free will of man so largely enters, will be brought to light. It is to this latter branch of the subject that my own attention has been chiefly devoted. In my museum at South Kensington, to which I have alluded, I have series showing the spread and gradual improvement of various kinds of savage and other weapons and their geographical distribution, others by which gradual changes in the forms of implements are traced from the Stone Age through the Bronze into the Iron Age. Another series includes a collection of weaving implements. In another the development of musical instruments is traced directly from the twang of the bow through various forms of stringed instruments until it terminates in our modern violin. In another series the art of ship-building is traced from the log float, impelled by human hands and feet, to the raft, and on to the dug out outrigger canoe into ships with planks or beams sewn together, where the Viking ship finds a definite place assigned to it in the continuity of the series, and so on to the most advanced forms of craft which navigate our seas as the present time. In another place emblems of religious worship are placed together by which are shown the extraordinary resemblance, if not identity, of systems which are not supposed to have much connection with each other. Finally, there are cases in which the best attempts of various nations at the realistic representation of men and animals are collected in which the rude drawings made by Kaffirs, bushmen, and negroes are compared with the first attempts by Dorsetshire labourers and children, and these again with the performances of many savage and early races in various stages of perfection up to the best period of Greek art, and on to the works of modern Christian nations. Other specimens show how savages may be made to improve in drawing and sculpture under European influence, whilst other cases contain series in which realistic art is gradually degraded on the one hand into ornamental designs, and on the other into symbolic writing, in which the original representations are, by degrees, entirely lost. There are also other series which I need not refer to. If it is objected that local museums cannot get together materials for so many subjects, I can only 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. What success has been attributed to it has arisen from the same object being kept constantly in view during many years, and from its having been always under the direction of one mind, which is preferable to having too many cooks in a matter of this kind. As to the results, I have never heard any dissent expressed from the general opinion of visitors that more is to be learnt of the history of the various arts represented in a few hours from a museum so arranged than it would be possible to obtain with much study from museums arranged on the ordinary plan.  ... an educational museum should consist of selected specimens put together to show the final result of these studies, and arranged in such order and with such careful ticketing that almost those who run may read. And this brings me to another part of the subject not to be lost sight of in estimating the use of a local museum. When we see these museums establishing themselves in all parts of the country it is well to consider how far they owe their existence to an entire change in our ideas of educational requirements. In my young days the education of boys consisted in learning Latin and Greek, and although I believe that very few gentlemen, except those who afterwards went to a university, retain even a moderate knowledge of these languages in after life, all would have considered it a disgrace not to have been properly whipped over them in their youth. So little was eye-training practised that even geography was often taught without a map, and men almost lost the use of their eyes for any other purpose than reading. Science has altered all this, and whilst it has added enormously to the complexity of a general education, it has at the same time curtailed the period during which education can be carried on, by increasing competition in the active business of life and making it necessary to begin a special course of training earlier, so that a knowledge of the most direct way of imparting instruction becomes every day of more importance. We know that it is the tendency of all persons, especially young persons, to form mental images of the things that are described to them, and as these mental images can only be based upon what is already in the mind and not upon what is about to be taught, it follows that they must generally be false ideals of the thing to be inculcated, unless the thing itself is shown to the student before he has had time to conceive a wrong impression of it. Mr. Galton has shown how, even in a matter so little susceptible of mental imaginary as numbers, many persons systematically picture to themselves patterns, such as square, angles, and other irregular forms, and place special numbers at the angles, sides, and surfaces of these figures as an aid to memory. In most cases the first impression of a thing is the most persistent, so that I believe half of the distress and brain pressure that young people suffer from in the course of their studies is caused by the difficulty of eradicating false impressions that are formed through the faulty system of induction. Another point of great importance not sufficiently attended to by instructors, at least of the old school, is the necessity of building up ideas gradually in the mind of the student instead of commencing with elaborate explanations of technical terms. My first experience in this matter arose many years ago when, as Chief-Instructor at the School of Musketry, it was part of my business to teach non-commissioned officers and privates, some of whom were quite uneducated, in the theory and history of gunnery. I found that the only way of building up a complex idea in the minds of the men was to take the several parts of it in the order of their discovery, by this means the natural process of mental evolution is pursued, and the subject is rendered interesting and easy of comprehension. Although a county museum is not strictly an educational establishment, yet, if it is admitted that one of its chief functions should be the instruction of the public, the same principles must apply to these collections that apply to a school. In economising space in a museum I have found it advantageous for certain small objects capable of being dealt with in that way, to have a uniform system of trays and drawers fitting each other regularly, each tray having blocks of various sizes to fit it so that objects of different sizes can be placed side by side in their proper sequence. By this arrangement a drawer full of objects containing any given series can be quickly deployed into line for exhibition and as quickly packed up again into the drawers without loss of sequence or delay whilst giving the required explanations. It is, of course, impossible in a local museum, or any other, to collect objects sufficient to illustrate every subject, or indeed any large number of the subjects that have to be taught, and there are of course many things that cannot be taught at all by object lessons. But every good series well inculcated serves as a key to others, and there can be no doubt that the power of abstaining from forming false mental pictures of things is a power that can be acquired by habit. In determining the subjects of the several historical series, care should be taken to select those most likely to interest the people of the place. There is an anecdote recorded in one of Sir Edward Belcher’s ethnological papers which is very much to the point of this matter. It was I think in Icy Cape that he came across a community of Esquimaux that had never seen Europeans or a European vessel before. A party of them were brought on board and shown over the vessel. They were taken down into the cabin, but they appeared to show no interest or to take particular notice, although they had never seen anything of the kind before. They were taken into the engine-room, but they still remained perfectly passive, and seemed to be without intelligence. Having been brought up on deck, they were taken to the forecastle, when suddenly they all at once began to show signs of animation and interest, and assembled round the iron-chain cable examining the links minutely. The ship’s crew were unable to account for this extraordinary behaviour until a few days afterwards, when some of their own handicraft having been brought on board it was found that they were in the habit of cutting similar chain cable out of single pieces of hard wood. The reason for the interest they had shown in the ship’s cable arose from their understanding something of its use and construction, and their curiosity was excited by finding a thing similar to their own handiwork amongst the appliances of a strange people. Of course this peculiarity is not at all confined to the Esquimaux, although they may have shown a remarkable example of it, owing to their total inability to understand anything so strange to them as a steam vessel. But the same thing may be seen in the unintelligent way in which visitors wander through the rooms of a museum in any of our large towns until they find something that they partly understand. I determined to try the experiment at my own country place of endeavouring to get together a little museum that would interest the people about. Rushmore, I am sorry to say, is in rather an out-of-the-way part of the country, being ten miles from any station or town. The villagers are few and far between, and the population scanty; many of them have never been out of their own district, and nearly all are engaged in agriculture. I accordingly withdrew from my museum in London everything which related to agriculture and peasant handicraft, agricultural implements of various kinds, models of ploughs and country carts of different nations, household utensils, country pottery, cottage furniture, peasant costume, jewellery, and so forth, and put them into three rooms of a house near Farnham, which had been originally built as a gipsy school, but long since disused for that purpose. I opened it to the public on Sunday afternoons, hardly expecting, however, that the villagers would take much interest in it. To my surprise the old soldier whom I placed in charge of the collection soon informed me that on Sunday afternoons as many as 100 people at a time sometimes came there from all parts of the neighbourhood, so much so that he had to regulate the circulation through the rooms to prevent crowding. I also went there myself and noticed that they took far more interest than is usually the case in towns, enquiring the use of the implements, or criticising the varieties, and, in some cases, themselves giving much valuable information which will be of benefit to the museum as it increases. I am convinced from this that if it is desired to interest the people of the district and cause them to understand the object for which the collections are made, the best way will be to select for the series the history of some trade or occupation that is established in the place, and which the majority of the inhabitants know something about. By this means, having acquired a thorough knowledge of the history of their own trade or occupation, they may be led on to make researchers into the history of other trades, customs, and institutions. I don't know how any one can doubt the importance of popularising scientific studies, and teaching the people in any way that they can be got at, especially at a time when the reins of power are being so rapidly placed in the hands of uneducated men. I will therefore conclude these few remarks by expressing my conviction that it is to the spread of the scientific method of thought, and more particularly to the sciences of society, to which I have referred, if to anything, that we must look for relief from those pernicious doctrines which appear to be upon us like a pest in the form of undue State interference, socialism, limitations upon the freedom of contract, and perpetual change of the law, which, if carried much further, will prevent any one from embarking capital in anything lest his earnings should be taken from him by some drastic reform. Science condemns excessive State interference as a feeble and abortive attempt to meddle with the law of the survival of the fittest. It exposes the fallacy of the doctrine of equality by shewing that from the first dawn of Creation up to the most advanced institution of human society, inequality has been the life and soul of development, and that no progress could have taken place without it. Scientific opinion is based upon such broad induction that it is not amenable to party tactics. It teaches men to suspend their judgment until sufficient evidence is obtained. Science deprecates radical changes by shewing how slow and gradual have been the steps by which all stable institutions have advanced, and that the motto “Natura non facet saltum” is as applicable to the progress of society as to the development of species. On the other hand it condems [sic] ultra-Conservatism by shewing that if Nature makes no jumps it also makes no halts, and that to stop is to go back and to decay. The students of science can be neither exclusively Liberal nor exclusively Conservative. He is bound to apply both principles in their proper places. He must be Conservative in the sense of recognizing that it is only by preserving the root, the stem, and the branches of our social system as it now exists that civilization can be expected to bring forth its periodical shoots of progress. He must be Liberal in desiring that those periodical shoots may be left to flourish and adjust themselves in the free air and light of Nature, unfettered by oppressive laws and over legislation. Science enobles trade, the arts, and every species of handicraft. It teaches men to be proud of their calling in every branch of progressive industry, and not to suppose that honour can only be gained by Politics, the Army, and the Law. I beg to conclude by wishing success to the County Museum.  (The address was frequently and loudly applauded during its delivery)

Transcribed by AP September 2011


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