Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Acquisition Events: Another way of approaching collections statistics

Chris Wingfield
Researcher 'The Other Within' project


Many of the statistics previously generated on the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are based on total numbers of particular objects. This is a number that can be generated fairly easily using the collections database. However, as this methodology has developed, a number of problems have been identified with it. The main problem relates to the issue of what a total number of objects includes. It has been noted that many of the statistics are dominated by stone tools and textiles collections. This is partly due to the ease of collecting large numbers of these objects because of their low cost, but also because of the way in which separate objects counted.

Each physically divisible part is counted as a separate object in the way the museum classifies objects. A single lace pillow with associated bobbins from Somerset counts as 117 separate objects. So this single acquisition would show up as a total of 117 in any statistics. As an indicator of the activity of the museum, statistics dependent on these totals risk masking two types of activity. In terms of total numbers of objects, a small number of acquisitions of extremely large collections would look the same as a large number of acquisitions of one or two objects.

Inspired partly by Janet Owen’s work on the personal collection of John Lubbock (Owen 1999, ; Owen 2006), it was decided to attempt to examine the English collections through an approach based on acquisition events. This would see each acquisition – gift, sale, purchase or exchange – as a single event regardless of the number of objects it involved.

Using this approach, the massive collection of 3249 stone tools sold to the museum by Archibald Colquhoun Bell following the death of Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, would only count as a single acquisition event. This should immediately reduce the impact of such large collections on the apparent activity suggested by statistical tables based on the total number of objects. It should then possible to gain an idea of the museum's activity on the basis of these events rather than in terms of numbers of objects.





Owen, J. (1999). "The Collections of Sir John Lubbock, The First Lord Avebury (1834-1913): 'An Open Book?'" Journal of Material Culture 4(3): 283-302.    

Owen, J. (2006). "Collecting artefacts, acquiring empire: Exploring the relationship between Enlightenment and Darwinist collecting and late-nineteenth-century British imperialism." Journal of the History of Collections 18(1): 9-25.