Report of the Curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum for the year ending 31 July 1940

The collections and libraries of this Museum are at present housed in four buildings, in the main court and wings of the original building, a large iron shed, in Museum House on South Parks Road, and at 9 Crick Road. The collections are very large and valuable, and the general state of congestion may be observed in the main court, which more and more comes to look like exhibited storage.

The difficulty of administering this widely scattered and tightly packed material usefully with the present staff and equipment was put before Council by the Acting Curator last year, and his report restated the need for a permanent Assistant Curator, a Secretary-Librarian, an increase of technical staff and attendants, and a greatly increased grant. Moreover, the report asked for the allotment of the present Geology Department when it falls vacant as a temporary relief of severe congestion in collections which increase by several thousands of specimens annually, and offered to give up Museum House for the use of Physical Anthropology. It was recommended that the University reaffirm the original allotment of Lanchester and Lodge, and finally set aside the area to the south of the court, including the eastward Geology wing, for building an annexe in three sections, with three storeys and a basement, to be named after the late Curator, Henry Balfour.

These plans, the only way of developing the full usefulness of the collections and their attendant libraries for the University and for the world, were most sympathetically considered by the University, which recognises to the full the value of its possessions here, and desires to see them take their proper place in University teaching and research.

Unfortunately the war began shortly before the Curator was elected, and the Council was forced to reply that major considerations must be left until after the war, but that applications for relief would be sympathetically considered if capital expenditure was not involved.

The Curator wishes to put on record his thanks to the University for its sympathetic consideration, and to state that even under the present difficulties an effort has been made to meet the problems of a Department which had become largely derelict during the long and painful illnesses of his predecessor, who was left with no assistant during the last six years of his life after the death of Mr. E. S. Thomas, a most scholarly and capable man.

It would be churlish of the Curator, also, not to put on record his gratitude to his present academic and technical staff, and to voluntary workers who have ably and devotedly given of their best under trying circumstances to restore order and to make up arrears while being almost snowed under by new accessions, largely increased by people leaving their homes or requiring more space to adjust themselves to war-time conditions.

Much has been accomplished even under straitened conditions. The partial use by firemen and later by the Home Guard of the Assistant Secretary’s room in the Main Court of the Museum somewhat hastened our plans to make provision within the Pitt-Rivers Museum for the Demonstrator in Ethnology, Miss Blackwood. We took the opportunity to clear the Curator’s room and a small lumber room and convert them into cheerful and convenient offices from which to administer the work of the Museum. Some extra expense was involved in heating one of these rooms and the work-room in winter and in providing fans for the summer. The Curator’s and Demonstrator’s rooms become uncomfortably hot, and the Demonstrator’s in particular becomes as hot as a tomato house without the perpetual use of fans by open windows.

While on the subject of excessive heat, it is well to mention the fact that the problem is most serious in the Exhibition Court. Temperatures of 110 degrees have been noted under the glass roof, and many specimens have deteriorated in the glare and heat, especially musical instruments, of which the Museum has a large and unrivalled collection. Those which lasted in playable condition during the late Curator’s life may not survive that of the present Curator unless new arrangements are made. During the war some relief is gained by painting the glass roof. Considering a long term policy, the Curator and Demonstrator visited Kew Gardens, and noted a system of slatted wooden blinds on rollers raised about a foot above the roof, so that there was a regular circulation of air between the roof and the blinds. Some such arrangement worked by ropes from the top gallery might be found practicable in this Museum. At any rate, some plan must be devised for lessening glare and heat, in order to prolong the life of many specimens, and of people who work in the Museum.

Besides the fitting of rooms for administration, we are clearing the roofs in the lean-to portion of the Museum to use as work-rooms, and for reception and storage. In spite of the shortage of wood, Mr. H. F. Walters and Mr. F. C. Whiting of the technical staff, with the help of Mr. J. F. Green, our cabinet-maker, have done wonders with our old lumber and packing cases. Using the wood which encased Tylor’s totem poles over 50 years ago, they have made deep cupboards along the walls of the work-room to contain accumulated material, and now that this wood is finished, are unpacking boxes of specimens which have been awaiting attention, using the wood for shelves, then placing the specimens on them. Similar work is being done in another long room, intended for reception of new material, employing unwanted partitions and boxes which a wise Government has forced us to clear from lofts where they had lain for over half a century. Tables down the centre will allow us immediately to unpack and treat material for its preservation and store it in the labelled cupboards to be entered in accessions books and be distributed by the academic staff. The work has been hard and dirty, but exciting, and it is pleasant to see how nice the result is beginning to look when finished by doors made from such strips of clean wood as Mr. Green is able to buy and plywood panels.

Mr. Green has been effecting still further economies since the shortage of wood became acute by altering obsolete and derelict cases which wasted valuable space into useable modern ones, and by employing drawn sheet glass, of late years greatly improved, instead of plate, in all cases where no strain is involved. This saving of over two shillings a foot will be very considerable in years to come, considering the enormous amount of glass which will be used.

After consulation with Mr. Digby of the British Museum, we developed a system of numbering all accessions as soon as they arrive by the year, month, and serial number within the month, placing a nought before the serial number of a loan, and a beta before the serial number of a purchase. This allows the immediate entry of everything. Full cataloguing is now done on cards by regions and by subjects, and is necessarily a longer process involving more or less research.

So much for new accessions. The problem of accessions during the last 50 years is being thus met. Mrs. Meinhard, Mrs. Maspero, Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Gibbs are indexing the old accessions books under regions and tribes, the cards referring to the pages wherein the material from any region may be found. Thus lecturers and research-workers can at once learn what material is available, and above all, we can easily advise our collectors of what we need, avoid duplication of effort, and save money in purchases. Mr. Atkinson, too, has brought up to date a donors’ catalogue so that we can immediately discover what a particular person has given or lent, a matter of obvious importance when travellers or collectors wish to add to gifts already made, or turn some of their loans into gifts. The old subject catalogue is being continued.

While the overcrowded exhibition space hampers our efforts, we have by judicious rearrangement, which occasionally involves walking sideways, been able to fit new cases to protect and display certain large specimens such as the Orokolo masks brought back by Miss Blackwood from New Guinea, and the eagle’s feather war bonnet brought by her from America. Mr. Turner, Assistant Secretary to the University Museum, and an authority on American Indians, suggested that this be displayed on the bust of Plenty Coups, a famous Crow Indian Chief, and supplied us with a full history. The Curator takes this opportunity of thanking him for much valuable information and research on our Indian material, and the Department of Human Anatomy for lending the bust.

Early in the year, it was noticed that the dry air and heat of the Museum had dangerously affected the wood and rigging of our fine collection of English ship-wrights’ models, made for the guidance of the men who built the ships. Mr. Phillip Johnson undertook their restoration, and now they are safe for another century at least; longer, if we have a more suitable place to exhibit them. Though the cost of this very delicate and specialized work was a large item in our small budget, it was a small matter compared with the value of the collection which is worth over £6,000. The whole restoration, including accurate documentation, cost less than one-fortieth of the value. Apart from these English models, there are many other models of craft as well as craft from all over the world which require his attention and careful cataloguing. A further sum must be allocated for this during the coming year.

The Curator, ably assisted by Sir Francis Knowles and Mr. R. J. C. Atkinson, is rearranging the exhibition and storage of the Stone Age material in the upper gallery. A neutral-tone Irish linen which never fades was chosen as a background, after a world-wide search of Museums, and we were fortunate in ordering enough of it before the war started, as well as of material for padding all of the drawers in the cabinets below to prevent chipping of heavy and delicate specimens.

Our disappointment at the delay in securing a magnificent collection of Palaeolithic material from the Musée de l’Homme was somewhat alleviated when we were able to get together the wonderful collection made by Professor Dorothy Garrod from her Mt. Carmel caves in Palestine, representative kits of tools, completely documented, from the Acheulean to the Natufian (Mesolithic). Moreover, Professor A. S. Barnes has supplied us with a considerable number of specimens to fill important gaps, and many well-executed drawings from his note-books of specimens which are unobtainable, and Mr. Hazzledine Warren has filled other large gaps. In certain places where we lack material Miss Blackwood has supplied the deficiency by photography, which both enables us to tell a fairly complete story, and reminds us of what we must try to collect when Europe is calmer. Less valuable material has been moved to cabinets in Museum House, which have been cleared of entomological and other specimens more appropriate in other Departments. The new arrangement shows, first, the Lower Palaeolithic in Europe, followed by that of Asia, then of Africa. The same arrangement is continued until the Chalcolithic, and is then followed by parallels found among modern Stone Age peoples (e.g. Tasmanians, Bushmen, Oceanians, and American Indians), with the techniques of manufacture used by them, and experimental work at Brandon and ancient parallels, to which Mr. V. R. Edwards, gun flint maker of Brandon has largely contributed. While this complete rearrangement (though adhering to the comparative methods of General Pitt-Rivers and Professor Balfour) is continuing, the Curator has had to close the upper gallery to the public.

While the gallery is closed, wire netting will be stretched below the glass roof. The collections have not been moved, partly because no place is safer than another, partly because many of them would certainly suffer greatly by movement, handling, lack of suitable supervision and conditions, and partly because other people with collections would find our empty space too tempting. Blacking out is impossible; therefore we close earlier in winter, and the academic staff continues in the blacked-out Assistant Secretary’s room off the Main Court of the Museum. The technical staff and attendants make up for this loss of time by staying an hour later than usual during certain weeks of vacation, especially at Easter and in the summer, when they can do much more useful work than in the winter.

Special thanks are due to the technical staff for work other than that already mentioned.

Mr. H. J. Walters, now in his 46th year of service, has conducted over a thousand school children from London and Oxford schools around the Museum, and has interested and instructed them and kept them in order in his own inimitable way. Even in war time, much use is made of the Museum by schools, research students, and students who take Ethnology as part of an Honours degree.

Mr. H. F. Walters has reduced our 600 odd keys to about 60, has given a number to each case, and put a corresponding number on the keys. He conferred this boon on us at small cost, obtaining all of his materials from Woolworth’s, except for the key-cupboard, which he adapted from an old case. He has done remarkably good work in restoring specimens, and preparing specimens and drawings and photographs for exhibition. Among other tasks, he is restoring an Erard double-action harp to playable condition. The harp was bought for a negligible sum, but, when new, would cost at least £120. He has further been of great assistance to the Curator in the restoration of old automatic musical instruments and musical boxes, some of which seemed doomed to eternal silence when collected.

As a pendant to the late Curator’s large and valuable collection of instruments of music, the present Curator is building up a series to show the history of Automatic Music, and insisting that every instrument must be made to play. Mr. A. A. Kennedy is doing valuable work in restoring certain of our musical instruments to life. It is our purpose gradually now, and more quickly after the war, to put a large number of our musical instruments into playable condition. Considering the fact that the late Curator left us with a large and representative collection of musical instruments from all parts of the world and that many of them can be made to play again, the Curator expresses the hope that the new annexe to the Museum may be opened with a concert of these beautiful instruments.

Mr. F.C. Whiting is ably assisting in the technical work of the Museum, and his work in dealing with the Balfour collections at 9 Crick Road is worthy of high praise. Mr. Walters and Mr. Whiting are of an age and will retire about the same time. As soon as the war is over, a young man must be taken on for training as a technical assistant.

The Curator desires to thank Mr. R.C. Gurden and Mr. R.J. Bates (now in the Army and Air Force respectively) for the energetic and sensible way in which they arranged the Balfour and Buxton libraries and largely catalogued them and made them useful. Mr. and Miss Ford of the Radcliffe Science Library deserve our gratitude for continuing this work. Periodicals are being brought up to date and continued, and gaps in the library are being filled.

Immediately after the war, the Museum must have a Secretary-Librarian to cope with the volume of correspondence, assist with accounts, and administer the large and growing collections of books and pamphlets vital to the efficient working of the Museum and promotion of research.

The Museum has started a series entitled ‘Pitt-Rivers Museum Occasional Papers on Technology’, edited by the Curator and Demonstrator, and prepared by specialists in particular subjects of the Museum. A paper by the late Curator on Implements of the Natives of Tasmania was to have been the first. Sir Francis Knowles is working on Stone Age Techniques, and Mr. F. W. Robins on the collection of lighting appliances. Others are dealing with other subjects as the opportunity and the man come together. The present paper shortage has of course made it necessary for us to postpone the publication of new periodicals.

Miss Blackwood left England for San Francisco on 1 July 1939 at the invitation of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress to read a paper on ‘The Use of Plants among the Kukukuku of South-east Central New Guinea’. She went out via Ottawa, Toronto, Chicago, and Minneapolis, visiting the Anthropological Departments of Museums in each, and made provisional arrangements for exchange of material. She also visited a Chippewa Indian reservation in Minnesota and bought material useful for exhibition and teaching. In San Francisco she bought some good Indian modern work from the Indian Exhibit at the Golden Gate Exposition.

From 5 August until 14 August, she attended the XXIVth Congress of Americanists in Mexico City, with excursions to sites of archaeological importance in the vicinity. Members were afterwards taken by special train to Oaxaca, where they were shown the excavations at Monte Albán and Mitla by Dr. Alfonso Caso, the Director. For this trip hospitality and transport were generously provided by the Mexican Government. On the return journey she spent several days visiting Mexican villages and collecting specimens of their arts and industries. She subsequently stayed at Santa Fe, visiting some of the Rio Grande Pueblos and purchasing pottery, silver-work, and other material. Her work there was cut short by the outbreak of war, and she went to New York to make arrangements for sailing, arriving in England on 11 October.

After a long and arduous voyage via the Panama Canal, the Sagadahoc arrived in England with the purchases made on the northern route and in San Francisco, a very valuable addition to the Museum.

The Navajo material is being stored for us by the kindness of the State Museum of New Mexico at Santa Fe, and of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These Museums also hold for us a large amount of Pueblo and Mexican material purchased by Miss Blackwood and presented by her to the Museum. Every time she goes away she returns with abundant and valuable presents for the Museum.

After Miss Blackwood’s return Miss Maria Chabot informed us that she was undertaking a 3,000 mile journey through the Navajo country to collect silver, textile, and other old Navajo material which was fast disappearing. We commissioned her to procure material up to two hundred dollars in value. Then restrictions on the export of money came into force, and the value of the pound was against us. Miss Dorothy Stewart of Santa Fe immediately offered to bear the expense of the collection and to hold it for us until the war was over, restrictions on export of money removed, and the rate of exchange was favourable to us. We cannot sufficiently express our gratitude to the collector and guarantor for this expression of friendship and confidence. We have thus secured a rare, valuable, and beautiful collection, made by an unrivalled expert under conditions which may never occur again.

The Curator lectured on Primitive Arts and Industries, The Ecology and Ethnology of the Near East, on Race, Culture and Environment, and gave special instruction to students of the Honour School of Geography and young men waiting to be called for service in H. M. Forces. The Demonstrator lectured on the Ethnology of the Americas, the Polar Regions, and Melanesia, principally to students taking Ethnology as a special subject in the Honour School of Geography, and gave special courses for Colonial Probationers in the Malayan Civil Service, and a short course for those in the Burmese Service. All lectures were well attended with very few absences.

The temporary absence of Dr. H. Meinhardt, a refugee, threw the entire burden of entering up accessions and cataloguing of material, photography, and the making of lantern-slides on the Curator, Miss Blackwood and some voluntary helpers. During an emergency, work can go on at high pitch, without vacations, and voluntary workers will give of their best. But it cannot be too much emphasized that a permanent Assistant Curator is a prime necessity. The Curator and Demonstrator have a large amount of teaching and lecturing, and the Curator has the administration of the whole complex of material and buildings, seeing that everything is put to go, and that nothing comes to an end. No time can be left for research on special problems when the Curator and Demonstrator have all the work of receiving, ticketing, and distributing material.

Over 4,000 specimens have been dealt with this year, including some arrears, and only a brief indication will be given of their nature.

Among loans at the owners’ risk the most important are a large collection of material from French Africa and Equatorial Africa generally, made by the late Mr. S.P. Powell, a unique and valuable collection of ship-models, one of which belonged to Lord Nelson, made by Mr. J.M. Thompson of Magdalen College, a collection made from all over the world belonging to the Ladies’ College of Cheltenham, a Malayan collection by A. S. Haynes, Esq., C.M.G., Ruanda and Uganda material from Mr. A.C.A. Wright, natural fractures simulating human work from Professor A.S. Barnes, and wood-carvings from the Gold Coast and Dahomey collected by Mr. A.P. Brown.

Among important purchases have been that of material representing the culture of a number of American Indian tribes, these being made by Miss Blackwood in America, a fine patu paraoa of sperm whale’s bone from New Zealand, a model of H. M.S. Agamemnon, the first large naval vessel designed for screw propulsion, a fine double-action Grecian harp by Sebastian Erard, and several automatic or semi-automatic musical instruments. The purchase of the Westlake Collection of implements of the aborigines of Tasmania, begun during the life of the late Curator, was finally completed.

Of the larger gifts, we may mention Miss Graham Bower’s collection of cinematographic and photographic material as well as specimens representing the culture of Manipur. The slow-motion records are especially interesting. The remainder of Mr. and Mrs. Culwick’s collection from Tanganyika arrived during the present academic year. We have also to thank the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum for a set of Indian armour brought to this country for the Glasgow Exhibition of 1888, Mr. J.V. Harrison for material from Central America, and Professor C.G. Seligman for a large collection of Stone Age and other material from Africa. Mr. Diamond Jenness, Chief of the Anthropological Division of the National Museum of Canada, presented a collection representing the archaeology of the Algonkian and Iroquois Indians, Mrs. Coltart sent a large collection made by her husband in America and Oceania, and Admiral Gurner gave us material collected by himself about 1890 in Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Professor A. S. Barnes, Mr. Hazzledine Warren, and Sir Francis Knowles made us richer by a considerable number of archaeological specimens, drawings and technical material, Mrs. Grisewood gave us a good collection of lighting appliances from Cotswold villages, and Mr. W.W. Skeat a collection of English bye-gones with a large number of notes made by himself. It was through his efforts that the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum sent a Welsh truckle cart with solid wheels, made to gather fern for bedding. With the help of an old negative among Skeat’s notes, the Curator discovered that the cart came from Llangennith, Gower, his present home. Other English bye-gones were presented by Mr. John Busby of Minster Lovell, Dr. and Mrs Milne, and Mrs Blackwood. Dr. and Mrs Burtt Davy gave us a valuable old collection of American Indian material made by themselves or by their ancestors who visited California with the historic Forty-Niners. The basket used for ‘stone-boiling’ (i.e., cooking by the immersion of heated stones in water) by the Pomo Indians is especially noteworthy. The largest single gift is another instalment of the unbounded generosity of Miss A. Powell-Cotton, this one of nearly 300 specimens collected by herself in Southern Angola, all fully documented in a way to fulfil a Curator’s dream of Museums in Paradise.


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