Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Penniman and the study of technologies and materials

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Thomas Kenneth Penniman

Thomas Kenneth Penniman

Thomas Kenneth Penniman outside the then back door of the Pitt Rivers Museum with street piano (1953.1.1). 1998.267.86

Thomas Kenneth Penniman outside the then back door of the Pitt Rivers Museum with street piano (1953.1.1). 1998.267.86

Sperm whale teeth slides

Sperm whale teeth slides

Thomas Kenneth Penniman was only the second Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, he was Curator between 1939 and 1963. His principal contribution to the Museum was his instigation of the working card catalogue system which allowed information about all artefacts to be easily retrievable, and was the forerunner of today's computerised collections managements systems.

Penniman had had a hard, rural upbringing in north eastern USA, where he gained many practical skills. He also worked as an archaeologist in Iraq. These practical skills and interest in archaeological and ethnographic technologies and materials were brought out once he became Curator.

Biographical details of his life up to 1939

Penniman was born in 1895 in New Hampshire, USA. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1917 but decided to enlist in the army, where he served for 18 months before arriving at Trinity College, University of Oxford in 1919. After graduating he stayed in Oxford working as a private tutor. In 1926 he registered for the Diploma in Anthropology, which he was awarded in 1928 ‘with distinction in all three parts’.

In 1928-1929 he was a member of the Oxford-Field Museum Expedition to Kish in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Around this time, deciding that he wished to make his home in England, he became a British subject. The Oxford University Gazette records that he was given a room and ‘other facilities’ in the Department of Human Anatomy, then located in the University Museum (of Natural History) at Oxford from 1929 ‘for the purpose of mending the skeletal material which he excavated at Kish ... and of preparing a report on the graves excavated during that season.’ (Gazette, 1930: 661)

In 1931 Penniman was made the secretary of the Committee for Anthropology at Oxford, at a salary of £50 per annum, and was responsible for the library of ‘the Department of Social Anthropology’. The Annual Report for the Department of Human Anatomy for 1931 reports that he had ‘been working on the material collected by the late Sir Baldwin Spencer in Tierra del Fuego. He seems therefore to have undertaken several part time jobs at the same time during this period.

Penniman lectured on Henry Balfour’s behalf in 1935 and 1936 while he was sick. Throughout this period he also seems to have coached students. According to the Oxford University Gazette in 1937 Penniman was 'appointed by the University to lecture on the interconnexions of physical and cultural anthropology, an as yet little-explored field.' (Gazette, 10 December 1937: 255) He also shared the teaching of Comparative Technology to the Diploma students with Beatrice Blackwood whilst Balfour was unwell.

In early 1939, because Balfour continued to be seriously ill, Penniman was appointed Deputy Curator until Balfour could resume duties. A month later, after Balfour’s death in office, Penniman was appointed Acting Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and from 1 October 1939 he was appointed Curator for seven years. This appointment was renewed in 1946 for a further seven years. This position continued until 1963 and Penniman often complained to the University authorities about the lack of a permanent Curatorial position.

What was Penniman like?

Ken Burridge,[1] who worked with Penniman described him as a man ‘few knew well’. He summarises his character as ‘[h]e had a full and many-sided sense of humour but was distant, caustic, and stubbornly shielded himself from others ... In his more winsome years, … [he] develop[ed] the stoop that was later to become habitual, appropriate to a scholar and museum man. ... Becoming in time a familiar Oxford figure as he wended his way every evening (including Saturdays and Sundays) from the Pitt Rivers Museum via the old Lamb and Flag to his sparsely furnished digs on the Banbury Road, Tom could unbutton himself – especially when someone, clumsy or uncaring, it mattered not which, mishandled his musical machines or trampled on the small garden plot outside his study. Then he unfolded. From the cramped stance suited for eye level conversation with his partner, the diminutive Beatrice Blackwood, he could swell to his full six foot four of New England bone, brawn and muscle and roar like a bull. No worse fright could any man have.’ (Burridge, 1977: 530).

Penniman's practical skills

Penniman was brought up on the family farm and 'learned to plough with oxen, make maple syrup, fell trees, shoot and skin bison, pluck ducks and chickens and churn cream and eggs into custard during his childhood'. [Larson and Petch, 2006: 125] He also learnt other skills, to repair local roads and bridges, from his father. He continued to work on farms to support his education at Middlebury College in Vermont.

In his forties, according to the Higham Times obituary, he learnt to spin and weave ‘by hand as well as with a watermill’. Weaving seems to have interested him for the PRM Annual Report for the year ending 31 July 1941 reports that:

Some time before the war began the Curator was able to send [a teacher at a Tring school who was teaching her children how to spin, dye and weave] the fleeces of three pet lambs from Delvid Farm, named Faith, Hope and Charity, since one was bigger than the other two, and with the help of Miss Galpin of Dorchester, a generous friend of the Museum, to give some advice about the work. The children showed their appreciation by spinning, dyeing and weaving a handsome large scarf from some wool of these lambs. The scarf, now in the Curator’s room, is much admired by visitors, not only for its workmanship, but as an example of a kind of training which ought to be more generally developed in schools.

Penniman and the Pitt Rivers Museum

When Penniman took over as Curator of the Museum from Balfour in 1939 there was much for him to organize. Balfour had been ill for a long time before his death and it is clear (reading between the lines) that a degree of disorganization and muddle had entered museum working. Blackwood, who was his chief support in the early years, remarked in a letter, that they were trying to:

... catch up with some of the work which has got badly into arrears owing to Balfour’s long illness and his habit of trying to do everything himself (Beatrice Blackwood papers PRM ms collections: General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Wilson Wallis, 16 May 1940).

Penniman set about sorting out this mess and amongst other things, introduced the card catalogue system for all artefacts (the production of which took him, and Beatrice Blackwood) much of the rest of their museum careers).

Penniman saw the Museum as aiming, 'to show the origin, development, geographical distribution and variation of the principal arts and industries of mankind from the earliest times to the age of mass production'. He believed that 'the main source of strength is in our comparative material from peoples who were in the Stone Age at the time of their discovery by Europeans, and in our series illustrating techniques of working'. [both quotes from the Annual Report of the Museum for the year ending 31 July 1941]

He believed that students should get first hand experience of using different techniques:

Here they make flint implements under the direction of Professor Barnes, try their hands at spinning or weaving, work out the scales of primitive musical instruments or listen to recordings of them, spread out big maps, or read. We are gradually collecting models or other equipment so that students can work out and practise the basic processes and mechanisms before they begin their study of native arts and crafts and their distribution. Such knowledge adds greatly to the value of their reading, and is a natural introduction to the study of peoples, both at home and in field work abroad. Materials for this sort of teaching are charged to maintenance and equipment rather than to the account for specimens.' [from the Annual Report of the Museum for the year ending 31 July 1941]

Occasional Papers on Technology

Penniman established a series of short books, written by people associated with the Museum, and published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Museum. He edited most of them with the help of his colleague, Beatrice Blackwood.

The study of technologies and materials

Penniman brought a practical, inquiring mind to the Museum. The Museum had suffered from a lack of direction towards the end of the 1930s, because of Balfour's ill-health, and Penniman lost no time in providing new directions.

Balfour had always been very successful in attracting ex-students and other volunteers to work at the Museum. They did this for love, not money, as the museum had very few paid positions even in the 1940s. Penniman managed to carry on this support. By the mid 1940s he had retained, or attracted, the following volunteers to provide support for the Museum's activities, many of whom were principally interested in working on particular technologies:

Alfred Schwartz Barnes (1868-1949) Very interested in stone tool technology and carried out many experiments. He was an electrical engineer by training and profession and an academic, working at Manchester University. He seems to have started working at the Museum around the same time as Penniman.

Francis Knowles (1886-1953) Very interested in stone tool technology. He not only worked on new displays, and taught students but also donated large collections of artefacts and wrote several Occasional Papers, he wrote the first occasional paper to be published. He first volunteered at the Museum from 1919 until his death in 1953.

Amy J. Nevell Interested in textiles and particularly lace technology, not only did she donate a large collection but she also worked in the Museum: 'Miss Nevell’s arrangement of an exhibition [display] illustrating the making of Pillow-lace, to which she generously contributed specimens and considerable labour'. [Museum Annual Report 1942-3] Nothing is known of this volunteer.

Geoffrey E.S. Turner (1910-1984) Turner worked for the Pitt Rivers sister museum - the University Museum (of Natural History) as Secretary (a post that would now be known as Administrator). His special interest was in the ethnology of North America and his willing and frequent help to the PRM was matched by the title ‘Honorary Assistant Curator (later Consultant) in North American Indian ethnology. President of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. He faced a lifetime of severe physical disablement. He was particularly interested in several technologies developed in North America relating to beadwork and hair embroidery.

N.B. This list only contains the names of the people who contributed work to the Museum which shows an interest in technological processes and materials. There were many more volunteers during this period who cannot be listed because of lack of space. Tom Penniman wrote very full Museum Annual Reports during his curatorship, and the names of all volunteers are given in these.

Penniman's own study of technologies and materials

Penniman does seem to have been interested in stone tool technologies and worked with Blackwood, Knowles and Barnes on preparing new displays to show stone tool technology from around the world. However, his principal interest in this area seems to have been in materials, specifically the working of ivory, bone and antler.

Like Balfour before him, Penniman's interests were often sparked by working on particular displays in the Museum. For example, in 1945-6 he was working on new fire-making displays:

In the Court, the Curator has rearranged the overcrowded case illustrating fire-making to show the distribution of frictional methods, ploughing, rigid and flexible sawing, and drilling throughout the world, and the development of percussion methods and their distribution. [Museum annual report 1945-6]

Which obviously led to research into the specific technologies.

Penniman's own tastes in opera and music met with his museum interests in music boxes and also in acquiring sound recordings of particular performances and (Western) classical music, for use in teaching. The Annual Reports he wrote show his enthusiasm for music boxes:

At last it has been possible to complete the delivery of the Musical Boxes from the Symons Estate, chosen mainly before the death of the late Mr. A.J.A. Symons, who was greatly interested in our plan to illustrate the history of Automatic Music. We had previously acquired examples of the Table Grand, Sublime-Harmony, Forte-Piano, Harp-Piccolo, Orchestral, Revolver, and Double-Cylinder, all linguaphones, in which the metal tongues of the comb are plucked by the pins on a revolving cylinder, instead of the fingers or thumbs used on the African Sansa, their prototype. The Table Grand and Double-Cylinder have extra cylinders which can be inserted, and the latter plays two cylinders at once in harmony. Sublime-Harmony has three combs, and Forte-Piano and Harp-Piccolo have two each, tuned in harmony, the Orchestral has a wind-organ and drums added, and the Revolver changes from one cylinder to another by the raising of a lever at the end of a tune or set of tunes. Among others in this class of linguaphones is the rare and very early Waterloo Box, given by Mrs Symons in memory of her son. The combe, as in all early examples, is bolted on in sections, instead of being in one piece, and the spring is wound by a key and chain, not by a lever. Of miniatures, we have only one first-rate one, by Rochat, and to make a good collection, need others by such makers as Bordier. In what may be called the Regina type of linguaphone, a revolving disc with projections, or holes, as in the Stella patent, plucks levers, which in turn pluck the tongues of the combs. Our previous examples were of the Regina with the 15-inch and 19-inch disks, the Stella, and the Three-Disk Symphonium, which plays three tune-sheets at once. This year, we have the 24-inch Polyphon and the Interchangeable Regina, which picks up and plays any one or more of a dozen disks from the carrier in the order desired. Several of the more complicated boxes were the worse for age, long storage, and the debris of enemy action. We owe it to Mr. Walter’s patience, skill, and ingenuity, and to help from the Engineering Department in making missing parts, that these instruments now give a perfect performance. [Museum annual report 1945-6]

It seems clear that Penniman believed that the study of technologies was the principal aim of the Museum, and the displays were educational tools to enable students to gain insight into the developments of particular technologies at particular times and in particular cultures:

The arrangement of large collections by subjects, with the areas in which objects are found as sub-groups within them, the original idea of General Pitt Rivers, sometimes displays the geographical variations of an art or industry, or the diffusion of an art or technique over a wide area, or the origin and development of an instrument, process, art, or industry, and on occasion may simply set out a complete technical process in the areas in which it is found, or again, show a classification of all the forms which a particular kind of instrument or object may take. Such an arrangement means that the Museum exhibitions and storage are always interacting, and cannot in all places remain static. This year, as usual, people have seen that some cases have been rearranged, others are being arranged, and some remain untouched. It has been necessary to undertake several areas of the Museum at the same time, so that while paint and other decoration are being applied and fittings made, or objects are being mounted or labels being composed and written, or while we are awaiting the results of analyses, it is possible to be sorting material in another area, collecting references for it, arranging the general layout according to space available, and generally considering the best type of exhibition possible in that space in view of the nature and amount of the collection involved. ... [He hoped that they could] keep up a continual interaction between the iron house and the exhibition area, and gradually improve the arrangement of stored material for immediate reference, since we use specimens in the same way that geologists and zoologists use them for practical teaching, and for helping the many research students who come from many parts of the world and need large and well-documented collections to aid their work. [Annual Report 1952-3]

For this reason the microsections he had had made of ivory and bone, and those that were later taken of metal tools in 1952-3, were often included in displays by Penniman:

This year we also completed four screens and two cases representing the metallurgy of the ancient Near East and ancient Far East, using where possible photomicrographs and analyses, and attempting to display the stage of knowledge reached by the early smiths. We now await analyses to go on with the ancient metallurgy of western Europe, and will continue with other areas as opportunity arises of getting analyses done. [Annual Report 1952-3]

To this end, in the Annual Report for 1953-4 he reported that:

However, the time was right, and members of the staff were ready, to establish what we have long needed, a small laboratory for the analysis of specimens, both for deciding what is the best method to ensure their preservation or restoration, and for their publication as opportunity arises. Mr. K.H.H. Walters [a museum technician] proposed the clearance of about half the entrance-lobby on the south side, and Mr. I.M. Allen, our analyst, decided with him that for satisfactory and rapid results the two of them should do the work together. Accordingly, they built a dust-proof room with double walls and a fan, and built or built-in installations to accommodate a hardometer, a polisher, two microscopes, one for biological and one for metallographic work and other opaque materials, and a microchemical balance. Work is proceeding on the installation of various accessories, so that by the time our next report is due, we shall be able to undertake the bulk of all the work of this kind needed by the Museum both for our publications and for the safe custody of our collections. Already a good deal of work can be done, even before completion of the full programme, as later parts of the report will show. This small laboratory is a good example of the importance of giving young people opportunity to gain instruction according to their interests, and giving them a free hand to develop and carry out their interests. The time spent brings reward to the Museum in good work, well done, and at considerably less expense than would be required if done by outside people. Moreover, we can deal at once with exactly what we need, as members of the staff know intimately what is often difficult to explain to outside people, and are devoted to the Museum and its progress.

The next year he reported again:

Last year saw the completion of the first of our small analytical laboratories. This year Mr. I.M. Allen, with the help of Mr. H. F. Walters, designed and built a second small laboratory in the first workshop, with a fume cupboard for chemical operations involving corrosive or obnoxious chemicals. Both laboratories are now in working order, and Mr. Allen has already carried out various routine analyses needed for identification of materials and their proper treatment, several analyses of iron needed in connexion with our forthcoming publication on iron, including a report on the Eskimo knife edged with pieces of cold-forged meteoric iron which was collected by Sir John Ross in 1818, with an illustrated account of his own successful cold-forging of a billet of meteoric iron. Since the Curator has lately added considerably to his exhibition of sections and microsections of ivory and other animal teeth, bone, and antler, Mr. Allen has cut and examined microsections of some doubtful specimens in the Museum, and determined their character by comparison with the type specimens. He is continuing a systematic study of the metallography and metallurgy of copper and bronze artefacts in our collections, and with the Curator arranged a small exhibition of work in progress for the meeting of the British Association. [Annual Report 1954-55]

It is clear that the development of these laboratories reflected Penniman's interest in this topic. He was lucky that he had a member of staff (I.M. Allen) who was also interested and able:

Besides regular work in setting up and putting away material for lectures and practical classes, and attendance on research students, Mr. I.M. Allen made chemical and metallographic analyses of a number of British Early Bronze Age weapons and implements, and placed twelve of them on exhibition with full metallurgical and metallographic details, including micrographs, at the same time filing complete reports of these and other material for future publication. Two bronze axes from Donsom in Vietnam, dated A.D. 40-50, lent by the Musée de l'Homme, were fully analysed and the data, including photomicrographs, placed in the Far Eastern section of our exhibitions of ancient metallurgy. Among work done for outside bodies, we may mention the analysis of a specimen from the National Museum of Southern Rhodesia to determine whether it was a runner from a casting or a copper wire end. This will be published in a forthcoming number of the Occasional Papers of the National Museum of Southern Rhodesia. Drillings were made from about twenty implements for spectrographic analysis for the Ancient Mining and Metallurgy Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the results, like those of other work we have done for them, have been of material help to us in our own work. For the same Committee, Mr. H.J. Case asked for tests on our Hardometer of several tin bronzes and arsenical coppers to find their relative hardness. Besides the help of the Committee, we are glad to acknowledge the help of Dr. S.R. Tayler of the Department of Geology and Dr. E.H. Hall of the Research Laboratory of Archaeology for some spectrographic analyses, and of Dr. F.M. Brewer of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory for some help in taking photomicrographs. [Annual Report 1955-6]

Ivor Michael Allen (1931-1963) was a technician in the Museum from 1945-6. In the 1963 annual report it was reported:

Mr. Allen has had to spend some time in hospital and convalescence with a serious heart trouble. ...The serious illness of Mr. Allen, a practising archer of some skill, and the enforced absence of the Curator, have delayed the exhibition of the extent and history of archery in the world ... We regret to announce that Mr. Ivor Michael Allen died early in the morning of 21 October 1963, after a gallant attempt to continue his work at the Museum. He was born on 30 September 1931, and came to us as a boy of fourteen, with an intense interest in the collections, of which he came to have minute and exact knowledge. At first the Curator taught him, then he joined the City Technical College, where he gained great ability in metallography and chemistry, so much so that he became Technical Secretary to the Ancient Mining and Metallurgy Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Besides his work on the book which we have mentioned above, he helped greatly in the preparation of other books in our series and was part author with the Curator of papers on metallurgical and ancient mining subjects. His drawing reached a high standard of accuracy and information, as did all his other work for the Museum. His temperament was steady, unhurried, and unruffled by circumstances, and this, with the great care and understanding of his mother, and later also of his wife, maintained him for many years longer than is usual with his type of illness. We grieve with his family in our loss, but are thankful we kept him so long.

Penniman collaborated with Francis Knowles when he wrote a paper about an obsidian blade which had been found in the University Parks, and handed in at the museum. They used their skills for detective work and examination of the technology to try and find the owner of the artefact via the article. See here for more information.

Penniman's legacy

Unfortunately the Occasional Paper series is now moribund, though it continued almost until the new millenium, and may yet be revived. In the 1963-4 Annual Report, a summary of Penniman's achievements was written:

Mr. T.K. Penniman, M.A., of Trinity College, was elected to succeed the late Professor Henry Balfour in 1939. Professor Balfour’s death had followed a protracted and painful illness, which had prevented him during the last few years of his life from documenting completely the expanding collections. Inheriting the daunting problem of identifying, cataloguing, and indexing a considerable proportion of the collection, Mr. Penniman with characteristic thoroughness reduced chaos to order and, moreover, succeeded in improvising accessible storage for the research and reserve collections under unusually difficult conditions. Two of his most notable achievements in his twenty-four years of office were the development of the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory from a professional staff of two to the present establishment of five and the foundation of the excellent series of Occasional Papers on Technology. In his report on the Pitt Rivers Museum Sir Thomas Kendrick paid handsome tribute to the work of Penniman and said ‘only his successor will really be able to appreciate the magnitude and thoroughness of the curator’s achievement’. I take this opportunity to confirm the accuracy of this prophecy and to declare how exacting a standard his successors will be required to emulate. Mr. Penniman deputized for the newly appointed Curator during his first three months of office and handed over the collections, records, and services on 1 January 1964. Since that time he has come regularly to the museum and has been of the greatest possible help in assisting and guiding his successor. The new Curator was delighted to find that he had inherited from Mr. Penniman a loyal and efficient staff who share his determination to work towards an early realization of the project to rebuild the Pitt Rivers Museum on a new site and in a manner worthy of its unrivalled collections.


[1] Kenelm Burridge, Demonstrator at the Pitt Rivers Museum (1959-1968), he also worked in Australia and British Columbia.


The information about Penniman's life and work is mostly based upon the paper I wrote with Frances Larson (see further reading below).

Further Reading

K.O.L. Burridge, 1977 ‘Remembering Tom Penniman’ Man, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1977), 530-531
T.M. Higham, Obituary ‘Mr T.K. Penniman’ in The Times, Jan 28, 1977: 18; issue 59919; col F
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
Obituary ‘Mr T.K. Penniman’ in The Times, Jan 20, 1977: 16; issue 59912; col G
PRM Annual reports from 1930 - 1963
PRM manuscript collections, Penniman collection, box 2a

 Technologies & Materials