Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Henry Balfour in the Upper Gallery [1998.267.94.4]

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Henry Balfour sitting in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.94

Henry Balfour sitting in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.94

This photograph, with an accession number of 1998.267.94.4, shows Henry Balfour in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford.

The Upper Gallery of the Museum has always been used to display weapons. Until recently it was reached by a small staircase lying at the back of the gallery seen in the photograph (at the end where the gallery wall moves in towards the desk top cases. The upper gallery was two storeys above the Court where the public entered the Museum. This corridor is the south side of the Upper Gallery. Over the railings, shown on the right of the image with desk top cases in front, visitors would have been able to peer into the Court below. Because the Upper Gallery is the top floor in the Museum you can see the roof struts above Balfour's head. He appears to be sitting on a wooden box or ?chest of drawers placed in the centre of the wood-boarded floor.

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

Henry Balfour was the curator of the Museum from 1891 until his death in 1939, he first started working in the Museum in 1885. 1998.356.17.1 shows him towards the end of his career.

The photograph

The photograph only exists in print form. It is not known exactly when it was taken, or for what purpose. The photograph must date from the late nineteenth or very early twentieth centuries judging by the clothes Balfour is wearing and also other evidence (like the fact that the weapons on the walls are not protected by glass or cases). The likeliest date is one around the time when the Upper Gallery displays were nearing completion for the first time in the early 1890s.

The photographer

The photograph is thought to have been taken by Alfred Robinson (1863-1938), the Secretary's Assistant in the University Museum (of which the Pitt Rivers Museum was then, more or less, a department). Robinson was known to have taken quite a few photographs in the museum of the artefacts and also photographs of the new displays. Robinson worked in the University Museum from January 1879. After 1885, when the Pitt Rivers founding collection arrived in Oxford, Robinson worked on those collections, gaining 'much valuable knowledge of cleaning and repairing and restoring of ethnological archaeological and other specimens, pottery, musical instruments, dresses, fabrics, jewellery, models of ships and boats etc.' [OUM Archives: Robinson History of the OUM 1880s-1890s] Robinson, in the same account, says:

About this time [1883, when Tylor was first appointed as Reader in Anthropology] the need of a photographer in the Museum was much felt, and henceforward photography has formed a large part of my work, and I have had almost unique experience of the photography of scientific objects in all departments, under the advice and suggestion of the Professors of Anthropology, Medicine, Anatomy, physiology, Physics, Geology, mineralogy,and Zoology either for the illustration of monographs and papers, for exhibitions with the specimens in the in the museum, or as lantern slides for lecture purposes.

Henry Balfour in the image

Members of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Class, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.1998.267.85

Members of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Class, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.1998.267.85

Henry Balfour looks very dapper in the photograph, and quite young. Although his hair has possibly receded a little he is still clearly the same person as in the photograph, 1998.267.85, taken when he was a student in the Oxford University Museum (he is the one holding a stuffed white rabbit by its ears). In both photographs he has a trimmed and groomed moustache and tidy short hair, which is very neatly brushed. In the image which is the main focus of this webpage he is wearing a dark-coloured suit and a wing collar and tie. An expert in male clothing of the period could probably date the image by his clothing. He is either holding something in his left hand, or gesturing toward something.

The Upper Gallery and its weapons displays

The artefacts on the south side of the gallery to the left side of the image appear to be mounted onto a flat background. The glass topped desk cases on the right hand side of the image are still in the Museum and if you visit the Upper Gallery today you will find them still in position. At a later date, upright cases were attached to the back of these desk cases in most places (vastly increasing the amount of display space, at least for relatively flat artefacts that can be shown vertically). It is still possible on the east side of the Upper Gallery to see desk cases (actually newly constructed on the old model) without uprights. These allow a much clearer and better view of the rest of the museum than is possible when the vertical display cases are in position.

The Museum was still quite clearly displayed on a typological model and this photograph probably shows displays very similar in form to the way that Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers displayed such artefacts in London. Unfortunately, so far as is known, no photographs survive today of the founding collection when it was still in London.

'Evolution of Culture', Pitt Rivers 1875, plate III

'Evolution of Culture', Pitt Rivers 1875, plate III

In the photograph, on the back west wall, on what appears to be a darker background are the displays of booomerangs and throwing sticks. The way these are displayed is very reminiscent of the sort of illustrations Pitt Rivers used to use in his lectures and publications, for example here is a similar illustration from 'Evolution of Culture' first published in 1875. The displays along the south side seem to include displays of axes, clubs and spears. Nearest the camera, on the south wall, are displays of axes including African and North American examples. At least some of these artefacts are still on display in the Upper Gallery today.

The history of the Upper Gallery displays 1874-1900

When the founding collection transferred from London (where it had been shown at what is now called the Victorian and Albert Museum in South Kensington from 1878 to 1884) the panels upon which the exhibits were placed were also transferred. Pitt Rivers in his displays at Bethnal Green Museum and later at South Kensington Museum stated his intention:

The objects are arranged in sequence with a view to show ... the successive ideas by which the minds of men in a primitive condition of culture have progressed in the development of their arts from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. ... Human ideas as represented by the various products of human industry, are capable of classification into genera, species and varieties in the same manner as the products of the vegetable and animal kingdoms ... If, therefore, we can obtain a sufficient number of objects to represent the succession of ideas, it will be found that they are capable of being arranged in museums upon a similar plan. [Pitt Rivers, 1874:xi and xii]

An account of these displays gives an idea of their appearance:

... Table cabinets were placed at the centre of the room, standing cabinets and simple pegboards around the periphery, along with drawings. The whole was carefully arranged ... The first segment of the exhibit, was devoted to skull types and other physical features including samples of skin and hair. Drawings ... supplemented actual specimens ... The second part of the collection was ‘Weapons’, beginning with the display of throwing sticks and parrying shields ... [Chapman, 1981:374]

Although the University came to formal agreement with Pitt Rivers that his collection should transfer to them in 1884, the collection did not start arriving until 1885 whilst the PRM building was still being built. As Bill Chapman relates:

By the end of the summer of 1885, materials had begun to arrive at Oxford. The precise order of delivery or exactly how the boxes were initially accommodated are unclear, since no records of the transfers were made either by Moseley or Tylor. No records exist either of the overall nature of the collection at the time other than the two-volume delivery catalogue compiled by the South Kensington staff and given to Moseley presumably at the time of transfer. [these volumes are now held by the PRM] The latter also provides no indication of the South Kensington books, or how the collection was moved to Oxford or what items might have gone first. Something of the sequence, however, can be reconstructed by referring to correspondence of the period. Upon arrival at Oxford the collection was placed in storage, in several rooms at the University Museum and in a number of other University buildings, including the Ashmolean. There it stayed until individual pieces could be properly sorted by [Henry Nottidge] Moseley [who was in charge of the collection on behalf of the University] and [Walter Baldwin] Spencer [who was appointed to oversee the transfer, see Petch, 2009]. Actual unpacking, however, was not possible until the annex was complete and during the whole of 1885, the building was still under construction with its scaffolding in place. In the meantime, a preliminary survey could be carried out, and although no record remains of staffs’ thoughts on that procedure, it is clear that at least the order of arrangement was established at that time. [Chapman, 1981: 489-490]

Moseley had written to the Secretary of the University Chest, William Gamlen on 23 May 1885:

The Authorities of the Science and Art Department have presented to the University a series of wall screens made especially for the Pitt Rivers Collection and to which a considerable portion of the collection still remains attached.
It will be most convenient that the screens should be brought here and stored till they can be erected in the new building, with the exhibits attached to them. As they are of large size it will be impossible to get them in to the rooms at present available without cutting them into short lengths a matter of expense and not without risk of damage to the specimens. It will therefore be of great advantage if some University building the approaches of which will allow the entrance of the screens intact can be devoted to their storage for six or eight months from the beginning of next month. And I beg that you will bring the matter before the Curators of the University Chest.
The extreme size of the screens is 9ft by 12ft. Most of them are 9ft by 9ft 3. [University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2]

These would appear to be the screens on the left hand side of the image, now fixed to the walls of the Upper Gallery. It is clear that a good deal of the first arrangement of the displays in Oxford too place before the new building was fully prepared:

I cannot conceive how a serviceable building is ever turned out of the University on a system of this kind. ... The four feet two stairway will not allow the carrying down of a single one of the 28 cases now erected in the old building ... Sage says the cases will have to be taken to pieces again to get them down the stairs now. The door is six foot and the stairs 4 ft 2, therefore part of the door is blocked by an internal wall coming to meet the corner of the stairs.
How will Pitt Rivers like to see his inscription over such an abortion? Tylor is going to the Vice-Chancellor about the matter. …'
I do trust that if it is proposed to abolish the galleries or omit the skylights or build up hermetically all approaches to the building we shall be afforded an opportunity of expressing our disapprobation first. [University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2]

Balfour was first appointed to be Moseley's assistant, unpacking and arranging the new collections, as Moseley described to him:

It would be pretty hard work of all sorts making little drawings, writing and typing out very neat labels, writing catalogue descriptions, arranging things in cases, mending and batching and cleaning, helping a carpenter fix things on screens, looking up objects of all kinds in illustrated books, Cooks travels etc. [Moseley to Balfour, 11 October 1885: PRM manuscript collections, foundation volume]

Fitting out the museum with cases took a long time. On 23 October 1886 a handwritten estimate of further expenditure 'in arranging etc the Pitt Rivers Museum' was compiled, including fittings for cases, screens, more table more table cases for Upper Gallery, ‘special small cases’, labels painted on wood, salary for assistant to Moseley for one year from Oct 28 at £150 [this is Balfour, up from £100 for first year of work], salary of ‘servants paid weekly from petty cash’ at £39. Total £725.10.0. Total petty cash expenditure for 27 Feb to 23 Oct 1886 was £60 [University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3]

For the whole of this period, Balfour was employed on a series of short-term contracts, working first to H.N. Moseley. After Moseley became ill, the longer-term arrangments for staffing the museum were raised by the University Museum staff. Eventually, on 31 October 1890, Balfour was notified in a letter from the Vice-Chancellor that a decree would be passed making him curator of the Pitt Rivers collection and giving him the same status as other professors at the University Museum. Meanwhile unpacking and arranging, cataloguing and researching the collections continued. Balfour reported:

It is greatly to my own advantage, as well as that of the University, that the work should be completed as soon as possible, and I am very anxious that this should be done, but, at the same time, if the time at my disposal is too brief to allow of the work being done as thoroughly as I am able, I would prefer to leave it in other hands.’ [Oxford University Gazette XVIII: 149]

In the 1888 Annual Report it was noted that:

During the past year the work has been chiefly confined to the Upper Gallery, and the arrangement of specimens (Prehistoric sections, savage and other weapons) upon the wall screens, and in table cases, as well as in a few upright cases. The greater portion of work in this gallery is completed, and this portion of the Museum is now sufficiently advanced to be opened to the public in the afternoons. There still, however, remains to be done a large amount of labelling, and it is intended to add, where necessary, small maps showing the geographical distribution of various weapons, etc. and sketches, in order to explain as fully as possible the different series. About 1500 of the specimens upon the screens have been fully catalogued; that is, a label upon each specimen refers by a number to a separate card, upon which is written an exact description of the specimen, with measurements, where necessary, locality, and all data, as well as references to literature. The cards are numbered and arranged in series in boxes.

In the 1889 Annual Report for the Museum Balfour reported that he was mainly working on the Lower Gallery displays:

The work of the past year has been largely confined to the classification and arrangement of specimens in the lower gallery, and of these considerably more than half are now so classified. The series upon the screens along the western wall are in continuation of those in the upper gallery.

During 1890 the additions and rearrangements of series carried on in the Upper Gallery and the Court, and the Lower Gallery remained closed to the public.

In the Upper Gallery several additions, partial re-arrangements, and improvements have been made, and a large number of descriptive labels and sketches have been added in order to render the series more interesting and intelligible to the public. It is hoped during the present year to continue this work as far as possible. [1890 Annual Report]

This Annual Report makes it clear that General Pitt Rivers' own displays did not last long in Oxford before Balfour started to amend and augment them, adding new acquisitions to the series.

General Pitt Rivers had begun to complain at the time being taken by the Oxford staff in arranging his collection, he considered ‘6 years an unreasonable time for it to have been kept in the background at Oxford’ [PRM, foundation volume]. On 30 April 1891 Pitt Rivers gave a public lecture entitled ‘The Original Collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum: its Principles of Arrangement and History’ in the Museum Theatre, by appointment of the Delegates of the Museum (of Natural History). [Oxford University Gazette XXI: 414] This is as close as the Museum came to an opening ceremony [Petch, 2007]

In the 1898-9 Annual Report, Balfour wrote that the University had agreed to an increase in an annual grant for general working expenses:

By a grant of Convocation, about sixty feet of wall-cases for the exhibition of specimens were purchased, and the cases erected in the galleries at the end of 1899, enabling certain important series to be properly displayed and cared for for the first time. It is much to be desired that other such wall-cases may be erected, in order that many specimens of great value may be preserved from perishing, and that the series may be rendered more readily accessible for scientific use, and be displayed in a satisfactory manner. A few other exhibition cases have been purchased, and two six-drawer cabinets ordered for the galleries. Two of the new wall-cases have been fitted with false backs, with doors, so that the backs of the cases are available for storing reserve and research material in immediate connexion with the exhibited material of like kind, a matter of considerable importance and convenience. It would be of great advantage if this scheme could be carried out throughout the Museum.

In the Annual Report for 1900 Balfour discussed the benefits of glass enclosed cases rather than the screens which Pitt Rivers had employed at the South Kensington Museum:

In the Upper Gallery, to which portion of the Museum most of the attention has been given during the year, the work begun in the previous year upon the large series of bows, cross-bows, blow-guns and quivers has been completed. ... With the exception of some of the bows (which cannot yet be placed under glass for want of the necessary cases), the whole of these series is now arranged in the new wall-cases erected in the N.W. corner of the Gallery. The reserve non-exhibited specimens are stored behind the double-backs fitted to these cases for the purpose, and it is now hoped that these important series, in addition to being more satisfactorily exhibited, may, now that they are at last placed under glass, be preserved from the sources of injury and decay to which the other specimens still exhibited upon screens are inevitably exposed. Scores of valuable specimens are deteriorating for want of the protection which glass cases would afford.

It seems likely therefore that the photograph was taken before the wall-cases started to be installed, which would suggest it was taken sometime after 1888 when the Upper Gallery displays were reported to be almost complete but before 1900. Because there are no Annual Reports before 1888, and the first ones are very short of detail it is not known exactly when work was carried out on the Upper Gallery displays, but it was obvious that the work had been carried out between 1885 (when Balfour was first appointed) and the start of 1889.

One way of narrowing the date for this photograph might have been to identify whether the glazing in the roof had been altered as in the 1894-5 Annual Report it was stated:

The glazing of the roof on the south side has been renewed on an improved principle, and in consequence there is far less damage from rain on that side

However, the struts of the roof obscure the view of the glazing so this does not help. Note that today the glazing has been boarded over, the Museum continued to have problems with water penetration and excessive light for many years until this was done in the late 1990s.

The weapons displays as they were after the glass fronted wall cases and upright displays were installed remained substantially unchanged until the 1970s when work started on new displays on the north side of the gallery (those that showed blowguns, swords and archery). In 1989-90 it was first agreed that there should also be a major refurbishment of the south and part of the west sides of the Gallery. This exercise was completed in May 1995. Unfortunately successive building projects in the museum in general (re-roofing, the new research centre extension, the new entrance) have ensured that the Upper Gallery has not been accessible by the public for much of the period 1995 to present day.

What did the Upper Gallery south side look like in 2004?

If you go to the Museum's virtual tour, and select the second floor, either of the two back positions on the right hand side (for example the one nearest the A of the phrase 'Anthropology and World Archaeology'), on the top right hand side of the screen, you will see the same corridor and some of the weapons displays, which were re-arranged in the early 1990s. You will need to orientate the viewer through 180 degrees from the start of the virtual tour from these two points because they start off facing the opposite way to the original photograph of Balfour in the gallery. You will note that the corridor section seems narrower, this is because of the wall-cases that cover the south wall. In addition this virtual tour was photographed before the new research centre extension, it therefore shows the staircase wall slightly differently because that was extended to include a small lift, still in use in the early 2000s. Now the PRM extension has been completed, visitors and staff now enter this gallery from the new staircase or large lift through large glass doors positioned roughly where the old narrow stair case was located but now external to the museum building. In addition there are upright cases above the desk cases which stop the visitor looking directly into the rest of the museum and down onto the Court. These uprights do not exist on the east side, so that the visitor can gaze down from that point, and see the back of the top of the totem pole. Apart from the difference of the cases and staircase, the floor of the gallery is now carpeted. In the virtual tour you can see the now solid roof but the same roof trusses as in 1998.267.94.4. When the photograph of Henry Balfour was taken there was no electrical lighting in the museum so work and visiting was impossible when daylight faded, in the virtual tour you can see the electrical lighting that, of course, the museum now uses.

Please note that the virtual tour was shot before the recent changes due to the new extension and the relocation of the gallery entrance and staircase. In addition, some of the displays in the Upper Gallery are in the process of being updated (especially the club displays which are located closest to the revised entrance). A visit to the Gallery is required if you really want to see how different Balfour's museum was to today.

Further Reading

Chapman, W. 1981. Ethnology in the Museum. Unpublished D. Phil thesis, vols I and II, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Gosden, Chris and Frances Larson with Alison Petch. 2007 Knowing Things: Exploring the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945 Oxford University Press
Gosden, Chris, Frances Larson and Alison Petch. 'Origins and Survivals - Tylor, Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum and their role within anthropology in Oxford 1883 - 1905' in P. Riviére [ed.] A History of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Berghahn
Lane Fox, A.H. 1874. 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]
Lane Fox, A. H., ‘On the Evolution of Culture’ originally in Proceedings of the Royal Institution VII, (1875), 496-520. Reprinted in J.L. Myers (ed.), The Evolution of Culture and other essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), 20-44.
Petch, Alison. 2009 'Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 20 [to be published]
Petch, Alison. 2007 'Opening the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 19 pp.101-112
Petch, Alison. 1998 ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (1998) pp 75 - 85 Oxford University Press
Petch, Alison. 1996 'Weapons and the 'Museum of Museums'' Journal of Museum Ethnography, vol. 8 May 1996: 11 – 22

Museum Annual Reports 1888-1900

Find out more about Pitt Rivers and Balfour's interest in weapons technology here.