Walter Baldwin Spencer 1998.356.30

One of the people who helped to move the collection from London to Oxford later became one of the most famous Australian anthropologists, Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929).

Spencer had become Henry Nottidge Moseley's assistant from Easter 1885, replacing S.J. Hickson. His main duties included supervision of laboratory classes and a course of lectures. In March 1885 he was involved in reorganizing the zoological collections. [Mulvaney, 1985: 54, 55] In June 1885 Spencer was recruited by Moseley to help with the move of the Pitt Rivers Collection from London. 'Spencer estimated that there were some 15,000 items, "and as each of them required labelling a considerable work has to be done. The Government people are removing it ... but we can't trust them to do the labelling ... We three began in the mornings and go on till 5.30 with only a short break for lunch. However, it is rather interesting, if tiring work: Tylor himself is of course the best anthropologist in England and a very nice man indeed."' [Mulvaney, 1985: 60][

.... it was the old Pitt Rivers collection that first gave me my real interest in Anthropology. It was, I think, in 1884 or 5 that Moseley asked me if I would spend the vacation in helping to pack up the collection which was then housed at South Kensington. I did a great deal of the packing up and it was intensely interesting to have Moseley and Tylor coming in and hear them talking about things. [PRM Archives, Spencer papers, Box IV: letter 21, 24 September 1920]

As Mulvaney comments:

'The move occupied Moseley, Tylor and Spencer for over four weeks. It is generally believed that Henry Balfour assisted them, but Spencer's letters are explicit that only 3 persons were involved. Once the collection reached Oxford, however, it had to be inspected and placed in the new museum. Although Spencer did not refer to these further duties, he must have assisted with them. A decade later, during his wordy disagreement with Lankester, Tylor wrote that Spencer and Balfour were given the Keeper's room in the University Museum while they handled the collection - and they 'used the room for a long time'. [Mulvaney, 1985: 60]

Baldwin Spencer, and Henrys Balfour Moseley and Acland in the University Museum [1998.267.85]

Penniman (a later curator of the Museum) certainly believed that Balfour was involved from the start, but it seems more likely that Mulvaney was correct and Moseley used his first assistant to start the process of movement and his second (Balfour) to start preparing the displays at Oxford. [Penniman, 1953:12] In the second image on this page Spencer is in the front row on the left hand side with a large egg at his feet.

Walter Baldwin Spencer left Oxford in when he was appointed the first Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne in Australia. However, it was not the last encounter he had with anthropology. After serving as biologist with the Horn Scientific Expedition in 1894 he met Francis James Gillen and their anthropological partnership transformed the anthropology of Australia in the early twentieth-century.

Spencer was well connected to Moseley and Tylor (who later helped publish his first anthropological monograph with Gillen). His acquaintance with Pitt-Rivers was at second hand but the excitement of seeing ethnographic objects from all around the world and learning about them whilst packing them up in 1885 was probably of inestimable help when he became Honorary Director of the museum in Melbourne, now known as Museum Victoria.

To find out more about Baldwin Spencer's contribution to the Pitt Rivers Museum see here.

Bibliography for this article

Chapman, William Ryan 1981. ‘Ethnology in the Museum: A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers (1827–1900) and the Institutional Foundations of British Anthropology’, University of Oxford: D.Phil. thesis.

Gosden, C., Larson, F. and Petch, A. 2007 [a] 'Origins and Survivals - Tylor, Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum and their role within anthropology in Oxford 1883 - 1905' in P. Riviére [ed.]A History of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Berghahn

Gosden, C., Larson, F. with Petch, A. 2007 [b] Knowing Things: Exploring the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945 Oxford University Press

Mulvaney, D.J & J.H. Calaby 1985 So Much that is New: Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) Melbourne University Press

Penniman, T.K. 1965/1974. A Hundred Years of Anthropology. William Morrow London UK

Petch, Alison. 2009 'Opening the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 19 pp. 101-112 [PDF]

AP, April 2011.

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