Transition of the founding collection from South Kensington Museum, London to the University of Oxford

Read Pitt-Rivers' own account of his collection at South Kensington and its transfer here.

Interior of the new Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford circa 1900.

In 1878 the founding collection had been transferred from the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum [SKM] to the main site. It remained there for the next seven years but its history there was one of uncertainty and potential change.

As Chapman has explained:

Pitt Rivers’ occasional arguments with those in charge of his collections at South Kensington served to underline a far more fundamental concern: whether he was planning to make his collection a truly public foundation by relinquishing his ties with it, or whether he was to keep it for himself. It was a decision that Pitt Rivers had been avoiding for a number of years. Still, something had to be done soon, and it was clear that the South Kensington authorities would no longer tolerate his attempts to retain control over the details of arrangement or add to or subtract from his collection as he pleased. The outcome was, as the Council on Education informed Pitt Rivers in late 1879, that the Museum would have to be given complete control if the collection was to remain on display there. ... In the early part of 1880, Pitt Rivers became suddenly and unexpectedly the heir to a great fortune ... For the first time Pitt Rivers had the means to purchase in an unrestricted way ... he let Richard Thompson at South Kensington know that he would ‘extend much more rapidly than hitherto the Ethnographical collection now exhibited at South Kensington.’ He was also anxious, as he explained, to provide for a more permanent kind of foundation ... I shall want nearly double the space at once, and if my intentions are fulfilled, more rooms will be required immediately’. [Chapman, 1984: 13]

Here is a table that outlines the main events in the transfer of the collection to Oxford and also the first few years of the collection at Oxford:




5 April 1880

Lane Fox attends funeral of Lord Rivers, from whom he inherits an estate and income

The Times 6 April 1880

14 April 1880

Letter from Lane Fox to Assistant Director of SKM explaining that he wishes to expand his collection rapidly and requires more space, and will provide staff to service it

Letter from PR to Thompson Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum [henceforth S&SWM], P125

? 1880

Lane Fox / Pitt-Rivers [P-R] offers collection to the nation as part of his negotiations with SKM

S&SWM, P134, 136c

25 May 1880

The Queen grants Lane-Fox right to use surname Pitt-Rivers


May 1880

Committee established to report on offer to Council. Members: Rolleston, Lubbock, Fergusson, Huxley, Poynter, Cunliffe-Owen and Donelly, Franks joined in or after July 1880

S&SWM, P127, PRM foundation volume, PR to Franks, 1 July 1880

1 July 1880

PR writes to Franks saying he prefers his collection to be sited at British Museum rather than SKM

PRM foundation volume

23 September 1880

Report in Nature about the proposed donation

Nature 23.9.1880 page 490

March 1881

Letter from Moseley to Franks, P-R has offered collection to University of Oxford


16 June 1881

Rolleston dies


June 1881

PR offer rejected by Council


14 December 1881

Letter from G.F. Duncombe  to P-R asked to stop sending items to SKM to add to collection (this does not stop though)

S&SWM P131

January 1882

University Committee established to consider PR’s offer reports to Hebdomadal Council

PRM foundation volume

April 1882

Delegates of University Museum consider PR’s offer, they ask committee of Acland, Moseley, Westwood and Prestwich to report on space required, and costs

OUMNH, minutes of the meetings of Delegates, 1867-1888, 1882.7

21 May 1882

PR expresses dislike of idea that his collection should be incorporated into the Ashmolean Museum

21 May 1882, Bod, MS. Acland d.92, fols.75-7

May 1882

PR responds to set of proposed schedules of study for Honours in Anthropology

MS Acland d. 92, fols. 79-90

May 1882

Decree to be brought before University Convocation published

University Gazette

30 May 1882

University accepts PR’s offer of collection, negotiations over details to continue

Chapman, 1981: 473, University Gazette

24 September 1882

Tylor writes to PR, saying PR’s collection should settle in Oxford soon and asking for support of anthropology teaching developments

S&SWM PR papers L8

26 October 1882

P-R formally retires from Army

London Gazette (25150: 4384)


November 1882

Keeper of OUM reports that a deputation had been appointed by Hebdomadal Council to discuss the PR gift with PR. Deputation consisted of Muller, Sayce, Stubbs, Acland, Westwood, Prestwich, Moseley, Maskelyn, Pelham and Henry Smith [the Keeper]

OUMNH], minutes of the meetings of Delegates, 1867-1888, 1882.12

1 January 1883

P-R becomes Inspector of Ancient Monuments

Thompson, 1977: 64, 73, 125


19 January 1883

Report to Hebdomadal Council from the Committee of Members of Convocation appointed to consider PR’s gift submitted

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/1

19 January 1883

Above report also contains report on space required for PR collection by Gilbert Redgrave

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/1

January 1883

Pamphlet issued by University of Oxford describing PR collection

PRM foundation volume

6 February 1883

Description of the Pitt Rivers collection circulated

University Gazette

February 1883

Henry Smith, Keeper of OUM dies

Larson, 2007

15, 21 February 1883

Tylor gives two lectures at Oxford OUM

Larson, 2007; Chapman, 1981: 480


7 March 1883

Convocation accepts PR collection as gift, and grants £7500 for building, cases and fittings

PRM Box 1 36-41, The Times 8 March 1883


10 March 1883

Tylor is appointed as Keeper of the OUM

Larson, 2007, 92

May 1883

SKM asked to prepare inventory of PR collection prior to its transfer

S&SWM, P132 [the whereabouts of this inventory are unknown in 2011]

2 June 1883

P-R in Oxford, staying with Tylor

Univ. of California Tylor papers

5 June 1883

Convocation sanctions deed

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

June 1883

Deane writes to Gamlen saying plans available of new museum

University archives UC/FF/60/2/1

6 July 1883

Morrell and Son solicitors write to Gamlen (University Secretary) to say that the deed of gift is being held while the catalogue of collection is completed and printed. Conditions had been added by Farrer and Co [PR’s solicitors] that a Lecturer should be appointed to give yearly lectures on anthropology and that the donor and his agents should be allowed to make drawings of the objects for publication

University archives UC/FF/60/2/1

24 July 1883

MacGarvey [Engineer] wrote to Deane regarding services for new extension

University archives, UC/FF/60/1

27 July 1883

Morrell and Son confirm to Gamlen that PR had declined to execute the deed until the University had inserted his conditions

University archives UC/FF/60/2/1

October 1883

Tylor begins work as Keeper of the OUM

Larson, 2007, 92

6 November 1883

Gazette records decree to appoint Reader in Anthropology

University Gazette Vol. XIV November 6, 1883, p. 89

20 November 1883

Decree regarding Reader post carried

University Gazette Vol. XIV November 20, 1883, p. 128

11 December 1883

Announcement of appointment of E.B. Tylor to post of Reader in Anthropology

University Gazette Vol. XIV December 11, 1883, p. 192

1 January 1884

Tylor starts in post

University Gazette Vol. XIV December 11, 1883, p. 192

13 May 1884

Publication of Deed of Gift and Declaration of Trust of Pitt Rivers Collection

University Gazette

20 May 1884

Deed of gift signed

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2, PRM papers Box 2: 20, University Gazette

20 May 1884

Decision that University of Oxford archaeological collections should be concentrated in Ashmolean Museum

University Gazette

June 1884

Arthur Evans appointed as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and begins arrangements to transfer ethnographic collections from Ashmolean to Pitt Rivers Collection

Larson, 2007

10 June 1884

Tender signed with Symm and Co to build new extension

University archives UC/FF/60/2/1

From ?June or July 1884

Moseley and Tylor visit New Mexico for the Long Vacation

Chapman, 1981: 487

4 July 1884

Franks is reported at valuing the PR collection for insurance purposes for £10,000 [roughly the cost of providing the building to house it]

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen University archives UC/FF/60/2/1

24 July 1884

SKM Board authorities resolve to allow PR to continue to send objects to SKM but not to allow him any more room

V&A Archives, Precis of the Board minutes Dept of Science and Art, 1.1.1884-31.12.1887 page 29 E.M. 6583

November 1884

Plans of new extension completed

Chapman, 1981: 487, see also 1885/1 History of OUMNH 1874-1902 Box 2, HW Acland correspondence

12 November 1884

Report of the Committee on the Pitt-Rivers Museum [sic] referred to the need to reduce the original tenders, reducing the size of the extension etc

University archives, UC/FF/60/1

25 November 1884

University Decree that the Curators were allowed to expend additional monies not exceeding £16,000 on the Pitt Rivers building including cases etc

University Gazette

2 December 1884

Additional grant of £1600 given for PR collection buildings

PRM Box 1 36-41

? 1884

J.T. Long appointed as first PRM assistant

22 January 1885

SKM authorities agree that their vans can be lent for the removal of the Pitt Rivers collection, and that they would give the screens upon which the objects were displayed to the University of Oxford

V&A Archives, Precis of the Board minutes Dept of Science and Art, 1.1.1884-31.12.1887 page 45 E.M. 323

27 January 1885

Letter from Secretary of Science and Art Dept, SKM to Tylor confirming that men and vans would be lent for the packing and removal of the collection, if the University paid the costs

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

11 February 1885

Letter from Tylor to Gamlen giving details of cases required with costs

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

11 February 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, reporting that the SKM authorites had moved the PR collection within the SKM to temporary accommodation

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

21 February 1885

Letter from Secretary of Science and Art Dept, SKM to Gamlen, he cannot confirm that the PR collection will stay where it is until it is moved to Oxford

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

19 March 1885

Letter from Tylor to Gamlen forwarding costs estimate from F. Sage & Co for case costs

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

24 March 1885

Further contract regarding new extension signed with Symm

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

Circa 5 April 1885

Walter Baldwin Spencer replaces S.J. Hickson as Moseley’s assistant and begins to help with transfer of Pitt Rivers collection, from June he works in London from ‘morning’ until 5.30 in the afternoon’

Mulvaney, 1985: 54, 55, 60

15 May 1885

Letter from Sage to Gamlen confirming cases will begin to be delivered on 1 June 1885

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

18 May 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, suggesting that he arranged with SKM for the removal, but that Moseley and Tylor would superintend the move. Some objects should be delivered to the Clarendon building and others to the Oxford University Museum

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

23 May 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, discussing the logistics of moving the screens, suggesting they are delivered to the OUM

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

30 May 1885

Letter from Secretary of Science and Art Dept, SKM to Gamlen confirming that SKM would be ready to pack the collection ‘at a day’s notice’ when Moseley and Tylor could be present

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

12 June 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, confirming they might want to store objects from the PR collection in the Clarendon building upper rooms from 13 June 1885, Moseley going to SKM to superintend that day

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

17 June 1885

Tylor was superintending at SKM, staying at the Athenaeum

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

22 June 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, he had just heard that the staircase in the new extension had been reduced in width which would cause problems with installation

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

3 July 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen enclosing statement of expenses for himself and Spencer, so presumably the packing in London had been completed

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

25 July 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen revising cases for new museum

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

11 October 1885

Letter from Moseley to Balfour inviting him to be his assistant and describing duties

PRM foundation volume

12 October 1885

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen saying it was necessary for him to have a skilled assistant for a year to help in arranging and labelling the PR colleciton

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/2

28 October 1885

Balfour starts work as Moseley’s assistant

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

21 January 1886

Letter from Duncombe to P-R asking where he wants remainder of his collection to be delivered

Chapman, 1981: 682


January / February 1886

Objects removed from SKM to P-R home

S&SWM, P133

15 February 1886

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen asking that building work on the extension for the PR collection be quieter during teaching

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

17 March 1886

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen about roof structure and colour of pillars in PRM

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

?date not available

Letter from Moseley to ?Gamlen asking for leave to ask SKM to allow one of their superintendents [Hill] to come to Oxford for a week to catalogue the collection

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

6 May 1886

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen confirming Sage’s men were anxious to start installing the cases

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

1 June 1886

P-R and family visit Oxford and PRM

University of California Tylor papers


11 June 1886

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen about the inscription over the door to the new extension suggesting that perhaps it should read ‘Pitt Rivers Anthropological Collection’ [it reads Pitt Rivers Collection’]

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

19 June 1886

Secretary, Science and Arts Dept SKM confirmed to Gamlen that Mr Hill would work with Oxford providing they paid expenses

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

5 July 1886

Case installation completed

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

10 July 1886

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen confirming he had checked all the case locks and was satisfied

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

18 July 1886

Hill comes to Oxford to work on ‘cataloguing’ the collection, he stayed in the Museum Cottage [sic] and worked with Balfour

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

30 July 1886

P-R in Oxford to receive his D.C.L.

S&SWM L235 The Times 12 June, 1 July 1886

1 November 1886

Captain Cook related ethnographic objects listed as being displayed in OUM rather than PRM

Letter from Moseley to Gamlen, Oxford University Archives, University Chest files, UC/FF/60/2/

By 1 November 1886

Ethnographic objects from OUM transferred to PRM

PRM accession books and University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

? November 1886

Further cases ordered from Sage

University Archives, UC/FF/60/2/3

5 February 1887

Tylor begins series of lectures about PRM

Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette

12 March 1887

Letter from Balfour to Acland seeking further recognition of his work for the PR collection

[1885/1 History of OUMNH 1874-1902 Box 2, HW Acland correspondence]

21 October 1887

Letter from Acland to P-R, Moseley ill and Balfour to take more responsibility

OUMNH, 1885/1, box 2

21 November 1887

Letter from Tylor to P-R confirming Hebdomadal Council proposes that there be a grant of £400 per annum to complete the arrangement of the PR collection and prepare a catalogue

S&SWM L420

29 November 1887

Curators of University Chest authorised to expend sum not exceeding £1200 from 1 January 1888 on PRM

PRM Box 1 36-41

13 December 1887

Letter from P-R to Balfour about arranging arrows and spears

PRM Box 1 27-30

25 January 1887

Court of the Museum opens to the public

University Gazette, Oxford Times, 12 February 1887; Times of London 7 February 1887

August – September 1888

Balfour absent from Oxford on journey to Lapland with Arthur Evans


23 October 1888

P-R visits Oxford

Chapman, 1981:518; Univ. of California Tylor papers

October 1888

P-R gives final donation to PRM, purchasing items from OH Howarth for the museum and also donating objects from Rotherley Camp

S&SWM L551 & 573 and accession book

4 October 1888, 20 October 1888

Letters from Tylor to P-R suggesting a 3d guide to the collection

S&SWM L541, L552

? 1888

Upper Gallery of PRM opens


? 1888

First annual report of PRM prepared


25 June 1889

Balfour gives paper to Anthropological Institute on composite bows, this causes controversy with P-R

JAI Vol. 19, (1890), pp. 220-250


? 1889

Balfour appointed sub-curator of PRM


31 October 1890

Letter from Vice-Chancellor confirming Balfour appointed Curator of PRM with same status as professors in OUM, decree passed in December 1890 confirming this


30 April 1891

P-R lectures at the OUM, The Original Collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum; the Principles of Arrangement and History’

Petch, 2007

1 May 1891

P-R visits Tylors

Univ. of California Tylor papers

November 1891

Moseley finally dies

DNB entry

Winter 1892

The last remaining area of the Museum opens to the public, the Lower Gallery

Petch, 2007

11-14 August 1894

P-R visits Oxford to attend BAAS meeting

University of California Tylor papers


AP, November 2010, significantly updated May 2011, totally revised October 2011

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