Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

What is an English object?

Alison Petch
Researcher and Registrar, Pitt Rivers Museum

It is much more difficult than you might imagine to define an English object, or to say what it means to be 'English', or define the 'English national character'. Rather than battling with these leading questions, I will answer a simpler question, 'What does the Pitt Rivers Museum define as an English object?' or 'What kinds of artefacts were considered to be part of the remit of the 'Other Within' research project?' The research project has examined the artefactual, photographic and manuscript holdings of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Broadly it has defined an 'English object' within these collections to fall within the following broad categories:

  • An artefact manufactured or constructed within the geographic boundaries of England
  • An artefact made elsewhere but used in England
  • An article made within England for trade elsewhere in the world (these would also be categorised by the destination country)

Largely these agree with the three possibilities for defining English artefacts suggested by Roud [2006:xvi], 'found in England, originated in England, or invented by the English', with some latitude being taken on the third point. There are other categories of artefacts that have, in general, not been considered, for example artefacts made elsewhere in the world by English individuals or organizations. These groupings are based upon the historical categorisation of artefacts by the Museum in its collections management systems (card catalogue indexes, accession book registers and, more recently, computerised databases).

These issues are particularly problematic when considering photographs as Chris Morton reflects in his object biography. However, if we were to include all photographs taken by photographers of English nationality, within the remit of the project, we would have to include the majority of the Pitt Rivers Museum's extensive photographic collections, which would have given us many practical problems. It would be even more contentious (and problematic) to discuss every artefact that could ever be considered to be 'English', for example to include all artefacts that have ever been owned by anyone who considered themselves to be English, for this would be to include almost all artefacts within the museum's collections.

Further Reading

Steve Roud. 2006. The English Year: a month-by-month guide to the nation's customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night. London: Penguin Books

Go to What is an English object Part II here where Chris Wingfield considers the same question.

23 January 2008