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About the 'Relational Museum' project and the methodology of research

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 10.12.35The logo of the Relational Museum project designed by David Harris

This project charted the history and nature of the relations composing the Pitt Rivers Museum through analysing the history of its collections. Ethnographic museums used to be seen as 'us' studying 'them'. A more productive approach might be to view museums as trans-cultural artifacts composed of relations between the museum and various kinds of communities. The Museum was convinced that collections represented an unusually rich source for writing the histories of institutions, disciplines, individuals and communities. We saw the project as having model value for research in other ethnographic, archaeological and social history collections.

The Museum was successful in obtaining a grant of £328,026 from the ESRC: for which funding the Museum is very grateful. The project began in October 2002 and finished at the end of March 2006. The project was led by Chris Gosden and Mike O'Hanlon, both at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It employed a number of people (including Sandra Dudley, Megan Price and Chris Wingfield, Laura Phillips, Naomi Bergmans and Helena Winston), but the two main researchers were Alison Petch and Frances Larson.

The Research Team undertook its research in two different ways: statistical analysis and archival research. The combination of a statistical understanding of the Museum and the archival accounts formed the core material evidence of the project. The project team also developed theoretical ideas of relevance to museums, their histories and roles.

Statistical analysis

We carried out detailed statistical analyses of the Museum's collections between the year of its foundation (1884) and 1945 (the beginning of the end of the formal colonial period), charting the networks of social and material relations which were created to bring objects to the museum and present them for display and publication. Although ending the bulk of our analyses in 1945, we made some consideration of more recent trends in the museum's history through to the present.

Information about the Museum's history

The research team undertook much research into the history of the Museum up to 1945. The main (but not only) source of information was the published Annual Reports of the Museum, available since 1888. For this reason the content is somewhat arbitary, varying at times from the trivial (the presentation and display of photographs of the donor of the founding collection) to the substantial (successful applications for large museum-changing grants etc). In particular, paid staff in the Museum were few in number during the early years and are thus recorded in some detail whilst in more recent years the number of staff has risen substantially, as the Museum has been increasingly successful in grant applications, and staff reporting has shrunk accordingly.

Archival research

We also analysed written accounts pertaining to objects, ranging from travel diaries and letters describing their collection to museum archives, in order to understand the modes of knowledge surrounding objects, and their changes through time. A variety of different archives were consulted in Oxford and elsewhere in the UK, including the Museum's own manuscript and photographic collection, London School of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), University of Birmingham, Royal Geographical Society, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University Library, the Oxford University Archives etc.

It was agreed to undertake specific research on six important contributors to the Museum's collections: Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Edward Burnett Tylor, Henry Balfour, Beatrice Blackwood, Charles and Brenda Seligmanand John Henry Hutton.

Archival research was concentrated on six main named collectors. We wanted to know as much as we could about their lives, their work, their collections and the interrelations between these aspects. Pitt Rivers and Tylor were relatively famous in their own lifetimes; Balfour, Blackwood, the Seligmans and Hutton were only well-known within their own academic circles. Their careers span the period covered by the research project, from the founding of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884 through to the mid-1940s: General Pitt Rivers started collecting in the 1850s, and Blackwood was still working at the Museum in the 1970s. Each collector had a very different relationship with the Museum itself, from Balfour, who devoted his whole life to curating the collections, to Seligman and Hutton, who lived and worked elsewhere but donated large private collections to the Museum. For nearly all of them there are some archival holdings which are discussed under each person's webpage (follow the links below). A timeline for each named collector was prepared and is now integrated into the events tables available on this website.

Most of these lives are well known within academic literature and the thumbnail sketches provided are a synopsis of their lives and careers aimed at non-experts, for more indepth discussions please review the futher reading lists at the end of each report.

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) Professional soldier, keen collector, and amateur anthropologist and archaeologist. His collection was the founding collection of the Museum. Much more detailed research into Pitt-Rivers life and collections was carried out during the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project and can be accessed here.

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) First anthropologist to be given an academic post in the UK (Readership and then Professorship at Oxford University). There is much more information about Tylor on this website

Henry Balfour (1863-1939) First Curator (Director) of the Pitt Rivers Museum. There is much more information about Balfour on this website

Beatrice Blackwood (1889-1975) Not as senior as the preceding named collectors, but a much more experienced fieldworker and field collector, she worked in North America and Papua New Guinea and was an Oxford University Demonstrator for many years. In later life she undertook many of the collections management tasks at the Pitt Rivers Museum. There is much more information about Blackwood on this website

Charles and Brenda Seligman  Charles (1873-1940) Brenda (1882-1965) The Seligmans undertook much survey ethnographic and archaeological work in Sri Lanka , Sudan and Egypt. Charles Seligman was a member of the Cambridge Torres Strait Expedition. He became the first Professor of Ethnology at the London School of Economics. See here.

John Henry Hutton(1885 - 1968) A career Indian Civil Servant, working both as part of the British administration in the Naga Hills, northeast India and in the Census of India; always interested in anthropology. In later life he was an academic working at Cambridge University. See here.

Research Papers

In addition to the monograph the Relational Museum team prepared a series of papers on aspects of their research:

Alison Petch 2004 'Collecting Immortality: the field collectors who contributed to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford' Journal of Museum Ethnography 16: pp 127-139

Alison Petch 2005 'The happiest years': J.H. Hutton and the Nagas' Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 54 November 2005

Frances Larson. 2006 Anthropology as Comparative Anatomy? Reflecting on material culture studies during the late 1800s and the late 1900s' in Journal of Material Culture vol 12 (1): 89-112

Frances Larson & Alison Petch. 2006 "Hoping for the best, expecting the worse": Thomas Kenneth Penniman - Forgotten Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum Journal of Museum Ethnography, 18: 125-139

Alison Petch. 2006 "Counting and Calculating: Some reflections on using statistics to examine the history and shape of the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum" Journal of Museum Ethnography, 18: 149-156

Chris Gosden, Frances Larson and Alison Petch. 2006 Origins and survivals - Tylor, Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum and their role within anthropology in Oxford 1883 - 1905 [ISCA Centenary volume]

Alison Petch 2006 'A Typology of Benefactors: the relationships of Pitt Rivers and Tylor to the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford' Forum for Anthropology and Culture [Russia]

Alison Petch 2007 'Notes and Queries and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Museum Anthropology vol 30 no.1 Spring 2007 pp 21-39

Alison Petch. 2006 'Chance and Certitude: Pitt Rivers and his first collection' Journal of the History of Collections (2006) vol. 18 no. 2 (2006) pp. 257-266

Frances Larson, David Zeitlyn and Alison Petch. 2007 'Social Networks and the Creation of the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Material Culture, Issue 12(3) November 2007

Frances Larson 'Anthropological Landscaping: General Pitt Rivers, the Ashmolean, the University Museum, and the shaping of an Oxford discipline' - Journal of History of Collections (2007) 

[The above information was taken from the Relational Museum website when it was transferred here, and slightly updated, by Alison Petch June 2013]

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Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford