Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers Museum - University of Oxford

Hilary term 2009.

Re-visiting Victorian Anthropology?

Friday lunchtime: 1.00 pm - 2.30 pm in the Lecture Theatre, Pitt Rivers Museum.
Convened by Chris Wingfield and Alison Petch, The Other Within project, Pitt Rivers Museum

Edward Burnett Tylor at his desk. PRM photo collections

Edward Burnett Tylor at his desk. PRM photo collections

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

In 1987 George Stocking published Victorian Anthropology, bringing new light to the development of the subject in a time often ignored or dismissed by histories of Anthropology that focussed on the period after 1922. Victorian anthropology was promoted by Edward Burnett Tylor, a major figure in the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum and often described as the 'father of anthropology'. He understood this as a ‘unifying science’ that could connect ‘into a more manageable whole the scattered subjects of an ordinary education’. Unlike the more specialized discipline of Social Anthropology in the twentieth century, Victorian anthropology was as an umbrella subject drawing on a range of sources including archaeology, ethnology, folk-lore, natural sciences and the ethnographic descriptions of travellers and missionaries. Although self-consciously historicist, Stocking’s book as well as his subsequent works have inevitably influenced anthropology and related subjects over the last two decades.

In early 2009, the Pitt Rivers Museum, an institution established by Victorian anthropologists, which regularly confronts the inheritances of that legacy, will host this seminar series seeking to re-visit Stocking's work, and Victorian anthropology itself, in the light of current and recent research. The series is organized to coincide with the end of a three year ESRC research project: The Other Within: An Anthropology of Englishness, and this has involved a great deal of research on the continuing legacies for the museum of its Victorian foundation. We expect that speakers will attempt not only to understand the work of Victorian anthropologists in terms of the questions with which they grappled, but will also ask how those questions connect with those we ask ourselves today.

23 January - Week 1 - Alison Petch, Pitt Rivers Museum
Total immersion or paddling?: the different models of fieldwork in Victorian anthropology
Fieldwork has been called 'the central ritual of the tribe' of anthropologists. [Stocking 1983: 70] This paper asks why Malinowski's model of fieldwork, based upon his work in Papua New Guinea during the First World War, became the defining form, and whether alternative models of fieldwork carried out by Victorian anthropologists between 1874 and 1914 might also be suitable.

Read the paper here

30 January - Week 2 - Hilde Nielssen, University of Bergen / Bergen Museum
James Sibree and Lars Dahle : Norwegian and British missionary ethnography as a transnational and national activity
This paper addresses the different ways James Sibree and Lars Dahle portrayed the Malagasy people and society. Are the contrasts between the two men's texts, otherwise so similar, understandable in terms of the rivalry between the mission organizations? Can they be attributed to differences in scholarly interest, personality or religious affiliation? Do the texts represent differences between British and Norwegian perspectives? If missionary ethnography can be seen as a part of a larger colonial discourse, what difference would it make if one of the authors was a representative of the British Empire, whilst the other came from Norway, a country situated on the periphery of the colonial empires?

Read an edited version of the paper here.

6 February - Week 3 - Oliver Douglas, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading
Upstairs, downstairs: The materialization of Victorian folklore studies
In his seminal work, Victorian Anthropology, George W. Stocking made a handful of tantalizing references to the British folklore movement, which at once both reveal and marginalize its role in the seemingly 'top-down' development of nineteenth-century anthropology. Richard M. Dorson’s The British Folklorists took a comparably horizontal approach to the emergence of folkloric thought, placing the so-called ‘savage school’ of anthropological theorists at its heart, and situating it within the wider academy. Despite the density and validity of both these approaches one might equally choose to examine the folklore movement from the 'bottom-up', taking its evidential sources—stories, artefacts, and 'the folk’ themselves—as fundamental. Such an approach will be seen to highlight the ‘material’ character of folklore and enable a collector- and informant-led narrative to emerge; one that concentrates on, rather than overlooks, the materializing processes at the heart of Victorian homeland ethnography.

Read an edited version of his paper here.

13 February - Week 4 - Frances Larson, University of Durham
The politics of theory at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1885-1900
This talk will begin to explore how theoretical frameworks have been put to use by individuals, partly for their own purposes. In other words, how concepts like 'evolution' or 'diffusion' are mobilized in people's everyday relationships with each other. My focus will be the relationship between A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) and Henry Balfour (1863-1939). Separated by a generation, these two men came to anthropology under very different circumstances. Pitt Rivers began collecting while he was serving as an officer in the army and his scientific achievements were the result of private reading and research. He was the classic mid-Victorian 'gentleman scholar'. Balfour, in contrast, read Natural Sciences at Oxford, specialising in biology and animal morphology. He was a member of Stocking's 'intermediate generation' of anthropologists: university-trained scientists and medics who dominated the discipline at the turn of the twentieth century. For both men, working with objects was central to their development as anthropologists, and when Balfour took over the management of the Pitt Rivers Collection at Oxford University in 1885, as a twenty-two year old graduate, the objects in that collection also became central to their relationship with each other. This talk will try to unpick some of the disagreements between Pitt Rivers and Balfour regarding artefacts in the collection in light of their different methodological and theoretical approaches, and, by extension, their different career paths as anthropologists. In their interactions with each other, material culture became a vehicle for the development of theoretical ideas and the play of personal politics.

Read an edited version of her paper here.

20 February - Week 5 Emma Cohen, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Oxford
Animism and the 'Tylorian Echoes' of Cognitive Anthropology
Despite plenty of criticism, Edward Tylor’s characterization of religion as minimally entailing “the belief in Spiritual Beings” has had much staying power in anthropology. Although scholars are now less concerned to offer generalizable definitions of what is and what is not religion, any scholarship in the thematic area of Anthropology of Religion will almost invariably entail consideration of the practices, beliefs, and material culture relating to spirits, souls, life-forces, selves, gods, and so on.
Recently, a novel explanatory approach to the generation, form, and spread of Spiritual Being concepts has emerged. Such explanatory concerns, of course, are old Tylorian chestnuts, which, some might say have long passed their sell-by date. Motivated by relevant, novel findings and methodological tools from neighbouring disciplines in the cognitive sciences, however, this scholarship does not merely offer novel frameworks or reinvented wheels. In this paper, this point will be argued, and relevant recent findings brought to bear on some of the formative concerns of modern social and cultural anthropology.

Read an edited version of the paper here.

27 February - Week 6 Katherine Cooper, University of Cambridge
Hopelessly entwined? Alpine lake dwellings and the relationship of anthropology to archaeological reconstructions of the prehistoric past in the later nineteenth century
This paper presents research undertaken as part of a PhD on the transmission and interpretation of lake dwelling materials between Switzerland (and one site in particular) and the UK between 1850-1900. I am particularly interested in knowledge transfer through images and objects and how lake dwelling objects and images were created, displayed, moved and interpreted and so reconsider archaeological collections and associated imagery and biographies as the site for the construction of various conceptions of prehistory. This paper focuses on the relationship that some of the 19th century formulations of prehistoric of lake dwellings had with earlier ethnographic images and conventions, and how this borrowing happened. Hopefully some of what I cover can also lead us to think about how these visual and material aspects of early archaeology, as well their more popular off-shoots in the 19th century influence archaeology today, perhaps particularly in Alpine Europe.

Read an edited version of the paper here.

6 March - Week 7 Due to the unfortunate cancellation by the speaker (see below), an informal debate was held. The motion was:-
Victorian models offer the best starting point for re-thinking the relationship between museums, archaeology and anthropology
See here for details about the debate.

The speaker in Week 7 was programmed to be Sarah Byrne, University College London. Unfortunately she had to cancel her attendance at the last moment. Here is the abstract of the paper she would have given:
Rethinking the relationship between museums, archaeology and anthropology: Are Victorian perspectives valid today?
This seminar will explore some of the perspectives and ideologies governing the relationship between anthropology, archaeology and curation of museums in Victorian times. The first half of the seminar examines Alfred Court Haddon’s (1855-1939) perspectives on collecting, material culture, archaeology, anthropology and how these influenced him in his role as Advisory Curator at the Horniman Museum, London (1902-1915). I will highlight how Haddon’s extended relationships were imperative in his transformation of the museum. In the second half of this seminar, I will assess whether Haddon’s perspectives and practices, many of which were typical of the era, illuminate or are relevant to current research concerns today. In particular, I will pay attention to the more inclusive aspects of Haddon’s type of museum anthropology, focusing on the relationship between anthropology and archaeology and that between ‘experts’ and ‘amateurs’. See slightly longer summary here.

13 March - Week 8 Chris Wingfield, Pitt Rivers Museum
Concluding Paper: Back to the Future? Locating and Re-locating England
This paper will attempt to conclude the series and summarize some of the outcomes of the Other Within research project. It will draw attention to the Pitt Rivers Museum as an institution with a Victorian foundation and suggest that it may be understood as a sort of 'homing device'. The paper will explore the way in which the museum's treatment of objects reinforces certain notions of otherness and creates particular kinds of selves. Finally the paper will consider how we deal with the Victorian foundation of the museum today, and the ways in which this continues to impact the institution and the ways in which people and objects relate there.

Read an edited version of the paper here.