The field collectors who contributed to the Pitt Rivers Museum'

Journal of Museum Ethnography, 16, pp. 127-139

Alison Petch

We are very grateful to the editor of JME and the Chair of the Museum Ethnographers Group for allowing us to re-publish this article

Often museums are simply characterised as collections of objects, but in fact they are institutions that derive from complex sets of communities who are all connected to objects in different ways. This paper considers one such community—that of people who collected objects in the field. Field collectors are vital to the development of any museum but they can be the least known-about community represented in a museum.

As has been described elsewhere [1], the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford has prided itself on the quality of its artefact documentation since its foundation in 1884. This quality has been accepted by others, 'It has long been recognised that the quality of the ethnographic records at the Pitt Rivers Museum are second to none, world-wide, and this standard has been transferred to the computerised database'. [2] Even this museum, however, cannot , regrettably, be absolutely certain in all cases that it knows the name of the maker and field collector of an artefact and why it was collected. Over the last year I have been working to improve the information and knowledge we have in the museum about our collectors. In this paper I hope to disseminate this information and also to shed a little more light on the development of this museum and its collections up to 1945.

What is a field collector?

In the museum's handwritten documentation, consistently maintained until 1985 when the museum computerised,  field collector, secondary collector, other owner and donor were identified and records kept in narrative form. However, all these categories of person were amalgamated in the so-called 'donors index' which actually contains details of many different kinds of people. In 1985 the Museum first began to move manual object-related documentation into computerised databases.   In the early years of computerised documentation there were broadly two separate ways of identifying people who had been associated with objects prior to their accession:

•people who donated, loaned or sold the object to the museum (now known as 'PRM Source')

•any other person associated with it

This bi-divide had the obvious disadvantage that the actual field collector was often not separately identified (and information pertaining to this event was presumably sometimes obscured or even lost). Nor was the cataloguer or curator encouraged to spell out the ownership or general history of the object from manufacture to accession.

As the use of computers infiltrated more and more of the museum's documentation process, the number of staff working with museum documentation grew, and with a growing number of research projects within the museum concentrating on the history of the collections, there was a prolonged internal museum discussion on the conceptual aspects of information collection, organisation and processing associated with museum documentation in order to ensure that the museum met the very highest documentation standards. It was considered important that the roles of the different people who had been associated with the object during its history became more clearly defined within the computerised documentation so that museum staff, visiting researchers and others using the information could be clear what the history of the object was and how each person mentioned in the records had actually 'interacted' with the object.

It is probably worthwhile, at this juncture, explaining exactly what I mean by the term 'field collector'. My definition is "A person who obtains an artefact, or series of artefacts, directly from the person who manufactured it or else from the person owning and using it for its original intention and probably within its country of origin. The field collector also obtains first-hand information". This definition would include archaeologists as 'field collectors' and should also include people who 'find' objects as well as those who deliberately seek them. My definition specifically excludes any collector who obtains artefacts through a non-'native' trader, dealer or auction house (I refer to this sort of collection as 'secondary collecting') . It does not necessarily exclude the collection of an item which has been used as trade and has moved from its country or place of origin but has not become a commodity or art object. [3]

This definition is not so very far from the separate definitions, given in the Oxford English Dictionary, of collector as 'One who collects or gathers together; ... one who collects scientific specimens, works of art, curiosities, etc ...' and field as being 'An area or sphere of action, operation, or investigation; a (wider or narrower) range of opportunities, or of objects, for labour, study, or contemplation; a department or subject of activity or speculation .... Used attrib. to denote an investigation, study, etc., carried out in the natural environment of a given material, language, animal, etc., and not in the laboratory, study, or office; also, to denote a person taking part in such an activity, as field archæologist, naturalist, etc' .

I believe that my definition is shared by my Museum colleagues based as it is on our deliberations as part of the ongoing review of the Museum's documentation procedures and collections information, and the preparation of computerised catalogues. The definition reflects the professional interests of those who work in the Museum as both archaeologists and anthropologists prize the products of fieldwork above those of library or secondary collecting.

Museum staff agreed that the previous explained bi-divide was too unclear and unwieldy and three separate categories were identified:

•Field collector (implicitly using the definition given above)

•Other owners

•PRM Source (using the definition given above)

People were identified as 'other owners' if they had owned the object, or been very closely associated with it (for example a dealer or auction house who sold the object). Collections management staff were encouraged to record the full history of any newly accessioned artefact in as clear a way as possible both in any manual documentation (for example, accession forms) or computerised catalogues. Unfortunately it has not always been so easy to apply the new categories when computerising or revising older documentation when definitions were not so clear as today. The splitting of categories in this manner is basically the same as that used by SPECTRUM (the documentation standards used by museums throughout the UK).

It may seem that refining these definitions is just part of the detailed collections management process and not necessarily particularly relevant to this paper but I would argue that, in fact, an interest in field collectors, rather than any other form of collector, is central to the way in which the Museum now conceives its collections. Identifying field collectors very specifically allows the collections to be seen in a particularly way and examined in a particular light. It was probably this consideration of the role of field collector in the museum that led to several of the current research projects in the museum but specifically to the Economic and Science Research Council funded project, 'The Relational Museum' for which more detail is given below.

In the Pitt Rivers Museum at least, the quality of documentation for objects which are still associated with named field collectors and have full histories is often perceptibly greater than from those for whom only scanty information is available. This is particularly true when the field collector is also the donor of the objects. It seems that if sufficient care was taken to record and keep the name of the field collector then often the exact provenance, the use of the object, sometimes the name of the maker etc will also be available. The more information that is known about an object the better, of course, as the object itself becomes more useful to researchers and more interesting to museum visitors. Some collections are very well documented in all these respects. Examples from the Pitt Rivers Museum would include the Naga collections from India formed by James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton.

The probable names of field collectors have been ascertained for many of the artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum. In the majority of other cases, the name of the field collector can be inferred from the available documentation, for example the named donor might have been stationed at the place from which the object was obtained and thus might be assumed (though not always correctly) to be the field collector. Other collections are so loosely documented that the field collector's name(s) may never be known for certain. It is into this uncertain world of historical museum documentation that the ESRC-funded project, 'The Relational Museum', has dared to tread.

The overall aim of the project is to explore the relationships between people and objects which composed the Museum. Museums in general represent complex sets of relations between people and things, which are historically dynamic. Museums thus represent privileged sites for examining the links between people and things and the sets of social relations, forms of knowledge and modes of representation which result. Relational models take as a central premise that entities (either people or things) are given shape and value through the relations within which they are enmeshed.  The project has been described as 'exploring the nature of the Pitt Rivers Museum as a meta-object extended in time and space, made up of a mass of changing links between people and collected objects from the period 1884-1945.  Communities from which objects came, collectors, museum professionals, archaeologists and anthropologists all contributed to the links composing the museum, within an overall structure of colonial relations' [Chris Gosden, pers. comm.]. The dates have been chosen because 1884 was the date the museum was founded, 1945 is a date chosen as a crude beginning point for the eventual post-colonial period.

The project in the early stages of its research has chosen to focus on two main areas. The first is to review the history of the Museum statistically (particularly with reference to the statistics relating to the changing shape of the collections, its geographical provenance, its typological composition throughout the period etc). In addition the Team has reviewed both field collectors, 'other owners' and donors generally and specifically researched five main collectors  (Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Edward Burnett Tylor, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Henry Balfour, and Beatrice Blackwood), each of whom was in some way important both to the development of anthropology in this country and to the history of the Museum, and two subsiduary ones, John Henry Hutton and an as yet un-selected missionary.  In order to understand the past, present and future of the Museum, the relationships of which it is constituted and in which it is embedded need to be understood.

Detailed information about field collectors represented in the Pitt Rivers Museum's collections

One of the first tasks I undertook as one of the researchers on this project was to carry out a systematic review of all the objects collected up to 1945 which had been accessioned by the Museum. This includes objects accessioned elsewhere within the University of Oxford prior to 1884 (the Museum's foundation date) and later transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum and also objects accessioned after 1945 that are known to have been collected prior to that date. I identified the full names and biographical details of the field collectors, and prepared tables setting down each collector in alphabetical order together with an estimate of the number of objects collected by them, the countries from which the artefacts were collected, the time-span of collecting, brief information about the careers of the field collectors and their links to Oxford. This information was the basis for the following statistical information. The databases from which the tables were compiled are available to the public at

A good deal of the information in these tables has been drawn up using biographical sources (principally those now available via the web). There is an inbuilt flaw or problem relating to historical biographical information which is that there is an arbitariness in the amount of information that is available about specific individuals. In general it is true that historically information is most available for dead, white, rich males (Who Was Who exemplifying this trend). Such people, of course, represent a significant proportion of our field collectors (but not all). Not all were male, or white, or even rich. This means that any conclusions that can be drawn for the statistics, for example, about which types of careers tend to be associated with the field collection of objects , are necessarily circumscribed by the fact that we can only know that the figures for people in a certain career is a minimum figure and possibly totally inaccurate. This problem is exacerbated when comparisons are made between different careers (or clubs, societies etc). Such caveats should be borne in mind when considering the statistics.

The statistics in the charts and tables shed interesting light on the way in which the Museum's collections were amassed. Please note that whenever the term collector is used it always refers to 'field collectors' and never to secondary collectors.

[table not shown]

This table [5] gives an idea of when most objects were accessioned to the Museum. It can be seen that our 'colonial organisation' cut-off point for the ESRC project of 1945 actually represents quite neatly when the pattern of acquisitions changed. It is a commonly held myth about the Pitt Rivers Museum that all objects were in fact received as part of the founding donation, that from Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, this table shows how far from the truth this is but also that, though we have continued to receive sizeable donations to the present day, the largest number of donations took place prior to 1945. In particular the number of archaeological donations we have received in the recent past has declined considerably since its pre-Second World War peak. It should be noted that this table includes objects for whom no field collector is ascribed.

There are 3444 named individuals who were field collectors up to 1945 in the museum's databases. Of these 527 (15 per cent) are definitely female which suggests that 2879 are of male or unknown sex (84 per cent,  the remaining 1 per cent of field collectors are institutions not individuals). In most instances females are very clearly identified in museum accession books (and therefore in the database) either because their full names are given or because their marital status is provided. The sex of the collector is unknown when only the surname or the surname and initial of one or more of the first names are given. In all instances where additional biographical information has been found for such collectors the entry has turned out to be for a male collector. This certainly accords with late nineteenth century/early twentieth century protocol about names and sex and I think it is a safe assumption that a vast percentage if not all of the 2879 are in fact male.

I attempted to find biographical information for all 3444 named field collectors:

[table not shown]

It is apparent from this that a surprising amount of biographical data is available for this fairly random selection of people. Of course many of the field collectors are people of note (famous as nineteenth century explorers for example) and others are likely to have formal biographical information retained about them because they served in the Armed Forces, but others are deeply obscure and it is a testament to the usefulness of the web as a research tool now, and to the excellent handwritten museum documentation at the Pitt Rivers Museum, that so much information about so many people was obtainable with relatively little problem.

The following are the top 50 field collectors by 1945, with the largest number of collected objects in the PRM (given in descending order [NB number of objects given in original paper omitted]):

Henry Balfour

Ernest Westlake

Beatrice Blackwood

Anthony John Arkell

Francis Llewellyn Griffith

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

Mervyn David Waldegrave Jeffreys

Charles Gabriel Seligman or Brenda Seligman

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers

Alexander Montgomerie Bell

John Henry Hutton

James Philip Mills

John V. Cook

Richard Carnac Temple

Dorothy Anne Elizabeth Garrod

Basil Hall Chamberlain

James A. Swan

Robert Powley Wild

Estella Louisa Michaela Canziani or her parents

Ralph Tanner probably Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner

Thomas Nelson Annandale etc

Louis Colville Gray Clarke

Robert Sutherland Rattray

Walter Leo Hildburgh

Peter D.R. Williams-Hunt

William Crooke

Francis Howe Seymour Knowles

Penelope Ward

Edward Burnett Tylor

John Wickham Flower etc

Frederick Thomas Elworthy etc

Edward Horace Man

K.V. Todd

William Scoresby Routledge & Katherine Routledge

William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Diana Powell-Cotton

William Macgregor / H.A. Tufnell

Melville William Hilton-Simpson

Diamond Jenness

Henry Hildburgh

Sydney Gerald Hewlett

Antoinette Powell-Cotton

Ronald Hawksby Thomas

Melanesia Mission [includes other named field collectors]

Alfred Schwartz Barnes etc

Barbara Freire-Marreco

Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville

R.T. Turley

Henry Nottidge Moseley

C.F. Wood

[series of tables in original paper omitted]

From the biographical information that was available, in varying qualities, for the field collectors it is possible to draw some statistical conclusions about which careers were most likely to lead to field collection, which kinds of connections or links are likely to lead to collections being given to the Pitt Rivers Museum etc.

It should be made clear that even where fairly full biographical information is available for the field collector this does not mean that specific types of information are necessarily available – not all Who was Who entries list careers or education but, in particular, many entries do not list all the clubs and societies to which an individual belongs. For both this, and the following set of statistics, therefore these numbers should be considered minimums rather than maximums. In addition, many collectors did not have a single career which led to their collection but several, for example, a 'religious' person may also have been an amateur archaeologist, a member of the armed services might also have served in the colonial services etc so these are often double counted.

Careers of PRM field collectors up to 1945

Because fuller biographical information is only available for a third of the field collectors, these statistics should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. They do not by any means represent even the minimum number of people who actually had this career (and were field collectors); the ratios between each profession is also affected by the fact that people in certain professions (for example, the armed forces or academia) are more likely to have biographical information officially recorded (and therefore retrievable via the web). However some limited interest can be taken from the fact[s]:

There is a far greater number of archaeologists and amateur archaeologists than there are anthropologists (and amateur anthropologists)

More Army officers collected material than Naval officers (that we know about),

Almost as many natural historians as anthropologists collected material

It is not unexpected that second ranking as collectors only to archaeologists are people working in the Colonial Services and that there are more colonial servants than members of the Armed Forces. The number of missionaries and other religious workers is also significant. Note that for anthropologists and archaeologists, amateurs as well as professionals are counted in these categories.

Of course all field collections, whether given directly or indirectly via a third person, needed some form of connection to the University of Oxford or to the Pitt Rivers Museum directly in order for that institution to be selected. To set this in context, it has been found that 48 per cent of all objects with named field collectors were donated, loaned or purchased directly from the field collector themselves, the remainder  (52 per cent) were donated via a third party.

Field collectors who give to the Pitt Rivers Museum can be characterised in two ways—those people with a tendency to collect anyway (naturalists etc), these make up a community of 'natural' field collectors to who give to all museums and those who have specific Pitt Rivers Museum or Oxford connections.

I had expected to find that people educated at the University were more likely to donate objects to the Museum but in fact this did not prove to be particularly significant; 11 per cent of all field collectors were known to have been educated at Oxford University, 1 per cent held honorary Oxford University degrees and 88 per cent  of the field collectors either had unknown educational background or had received their tertiary education elsewhere.

Another reason which might predispose a person to give an object to the Museum is residence within Oxfordshire.  The following graph shows the residency of field collectors: [Graph omitted] Again this does not seem particularly significant although it is more significant than being educated at Oxford University.

In so far as can be verified from the limited information available membership of some clubs and societies was prevalent among donors but not to a significant level. The most common clubs for field collectors with available biographical information to belong to were (in descending order):

•British Association for the Advancement of Science

•Royal Geographical Society


•Society of Antiquaries

•Royal Society

•Royal Anthropological Institute

•Folklore Society

•Zoological Society

The relatively low recorded levels of club and society membership reflects the relatively small number of individuals for whom we have Who was Who entries (the only reliable source of club membership). Even for Who was Who entries the contents were based upon an individual's own choice of what to include, many BAAS members for example did not list this. I have carried out random checks on two years BAAS membership — matching names of our field collectors to the full BAAS membership lists and found several new members by this method. This task is, however, too time-consuming to be possible to fully conclude during the life of this research project.

The spread of clubs and societies for which I have limited information is quite wide (much wider than the above table shows) and reflects the many professional interests (and hobbies) of the field collectors. Even the listed societies have a wide spread from zoological to geographical. One significant thing to note might be the large number of Royal Society members almost all of whom are listed as being Fellows (nearly as large as membership of the Society of Antiquaries and higher than the RAI).

In other words, this part of the ESRC projects research has not provided a clear link between the field collector and the Museum and Oxford. An understanding of what led the collectors to donate here will hopefully come from other areas of the research and will be published separately.


Undertaking a review of field collectors in the Pitt Rivers Museum has provided a lot of new information which will be of great use to museum staff, visiting researchers and museum visitors. It may also be of use to staff of other museums as a great number of our field collectors have also contributed to other ethnographic museums in the UK and worldwide.

Research carried out in University Museums can often be seen as separate and remote from day to day core museum activities of caring for the collections etc. As this part of the ESRC project work shows, in fact research can materially improve some aspects of core museum activity. During the work which led to this paper the author enhanced or 'cleaned' almost every entry on the artefact database and prepared almost 1000 new biographies of collectors (trebling the number of biographies the Museum holds). It is to be hoped that this information will be of use to other museum staff and to visiting researchers and also used when compiling information or exhibition text for museum visitors. These statistics will also be used to compile the final publications of the ESRC project.

Although I started this paper talking about different communities that feed into museum collections and suggesting that field collectors are one such community, of course they do not form a community in the sense that there is much communication between them. Evidently there was a degree of communication between some of the Pitt Rivers Museum's field collectors - some of them were linked through the person who donated their collections to the Museum, others were linked directly because of their shared professional or personal interests (I am thinking of collectors such as Hutton and Mills who encouraged each other to collect and donate to Museums, and dynasties of collectors such as the Powell-Cottons or the Pitt Rivers), but the vast majority will have never met or known each other. Many field collectors shared characteristics without ever having met (for example being students at Oxford). Some others collected and donated as a result of social networks within which the Museum (or its staff) were also involved.

Field collections can be seen as a way of 'buying' immortality. For those field collectors for whom little biographical information is available it is clear that their collections may be the only reason for which their name is now known outside their immediate descendants, while for other better known individuals the collections may provide a different view of them than is appreciated  generally or may, of course, be their main source of fame. Even our most famous field collector, Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, main claim to fame is his collection — without his collection (and his archaeological work) he would these days be little remembered.  In case readers are surprised at Pitt Rivers relatively low ranking in our top 50 field collectors,  I remind them that the majority of his collection was the result of 'secondary collecting' from dealers etc and he did not collect many objects in the field.

Although the gaps in our knowledge of some collectors and the collecting history of the museum at this time is irksome (particularly for me) the ESRC project, by reviewing the whole history of the museum up to 1945 in such detail, and by using examining the collections management information statistically, will be able to highlight much new information which will permit new ways of thinking about our collections.


Blackwood , B. 1970 The Classification of Artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. Occasional Papers on Technology, no. 11. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Coote, J. et al. 2000 'Computerizing the Forster ('Cook'), Arawe, and Founding Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum', Pacific Arts, nos. 19/20 (July 2000), pp. 48-80

Dudley, S. 2003. 'The Relational Museum' paper prepared for the Association of Social Anthropologists conference July 2003.

Mowat, L. and E. Edwards. 1990. 'Terminology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: The Pragmatic Approach' in A. Roberts (ed.) Terminology for Museums: Proceedings of an International Conference held at Cambridge, England 21-24 September 1988 (the second conference of the Museums Documentation Association) Cambridge: Museum Documentation Association, with the assistance of the Getty Grant Program, pp 200-212.

Petch, A. 1998. ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (Oxford University Press) pp. 75-85

Petch, A. 1999. 'Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection'. Journal of Museum Ethnography 11, pp. 95-104

Petch, A. 2002. ‘Today a computerised catalogue - tomorrow the world’ Journal of Museum Ethnography No. 14, pp 94 - 99

Petch, A. 2003. 'Documentation in the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography No. 15, pp 109 - 114

Notes and References

[1] See Petch, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and Coote et al 2000

[2] Len Pole, Curator of Ethnography Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter [pers. comm.]

[3] I must acknowledge the great help that Jeremy Coote has afforded me during my writing of this paper, discussing the many issues arising out of the definition of 'field collector ' etc.

[4] I would also like to acknowledge the contributions that my colleagues on the ESRC funded 'Relational Museum project, Chris Gosden, Mike O'Hanlon, Fran Knight, Chris Wingfield, Megan Price and Sandra Dudley to this paper.

[5] I wish to thank Claire Freeman for permission to use this chart.

[Transcribed by Alison Petch 3 June 2010 as part of the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project]

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