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Presidential Address by Balfour to Royal Anthropological Institute, 1903-1904

The Relationship of Museums to the study of Anthropology

The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 34, (Jan.-Jun.,1904), pp. 10-19

It has usually been the custom, on the occasion of our annual meetings, for the President to give in his address a resumé of the principal events of anthropological interest which have occurred during his term of office, and to pass in review the work done by the Institute during the past year. That the observance of this prevailing custom has been acceptable to the Fellows cannot, I think, be doubted. It may even be that it was originally intended that the President should, in this manner, sum up once a year the achievements and noteworthy features of the science-which he represents, and that this was the primary raison d'etre of the presidential address. At any rate, the numerous addresses which have been delivered by former Presidents having this theme for their basis, have amply justified this procedure, and have afforded eloquent testimony to the fact that, in able hands, a retrospect of the year's anthropological work may be presented in a form which for interest and instructiveness leaves nothing to be desired.

In recent years, the Annual Report of the Council has to some extent relieved the President of this duty, and, partly on this account, partly, too, no doubt, because, were I to follow on the accepted lines, I should dread a comparison of the clumsy efforts of my own pen with the able addresses of my distinguished predecessors I, have welcomed the precedent, established by some of the former occupants of the chair, of departing from the usual observance, and devoting the major portion of their addresses to some selected topic of general anthropological interest. I cannot but think that the President of the Institute is justified in asking leave to unburden his soul on such an occasion, provided that he is sanguine enough to believe that his views may be of some practical value in furthering the developmental progress of the science of Anthropology. In following the lead of those of my predecessors who have selected their own theme for their addresses, I readily yield to them the credit for having initiated a departure from normal procedure, together, of course, with the blame should any have been incurred.

That the general progress of Anthropology in our country has been maintained, cannot, I think, be denied, and, if its steps are slower than we could wish, at least the advance has been continuous and unchecked. Enough useful and interesting work has been done to show clearly what great advances might be made in this important science, were the funds available for its pursuit in any way proportioned to its needs. Fortunately genuine enthusiasm is not lacking, and that may be regarded as a certain sign of the healthy vitality of the science, which, if restrained, is at least unsubdued by the lack of adequate financial support.

Among the signs of an increasing appreciation of the value of anthropological investigations, may be mentioned the fact that there is an increasing number of workers in the field, and that the work of anthropologists is being more and more appealed to on matters not only of scientific research, but also of practical economical importance.

Reference should also be made, in this connection, to the recent action taken by the governing body of one of the colleges at Oxford, by which a fellowship, tenable for five years, has been given for anthropological research, a most gratifying recognition of the importance of this science.

The work of the Institute has gone on unchecked, and the publications have fully maintained their high standard. It is true that, in spite of an increasing membership, the income has not proved sufficient to meet all the expenses incurred, and that some capital expenditure has been unavoidable, so that it is clear that an increase in the membership, bringing an increased income, is most necessary, if we are to carry on adequately the useful work on which we are engaged, of collecting, recording, and marshaling the facts relating to Man's history and present status. If every two Fellows would enlist a single new one, the financial position would be most usefully improved, and the strain materially relieved. It is only asking each Fellow to assume a minimum responsibility to the extent of half a candidate, no very extravagant demand, in view of the importance of the result which would accrue.

I have to deplore the loss, during my year of office, of two valued colleagues, through their retirement from official posts. Early in the year Mr. Myres resigned the Secretaryship, which he had held with much benefit to the Institute, and to which he had devoted so much of his time and so great an activity. At the end of the year Mr. Lewis is not seeking re-nomination to the Treasurership, and thus retires from the important position which he has filled with devotion and courtesy during a great many years, ever mindful of the financial interests of the Institute. If it has not been his happy lot to be able to carry forward large and appropriate balances, by reason of the smallness of our income, at least, in his latest report, he has the satisfaction of recording the fact that our publication, Man, has been self-supporting during the past twelve months.

That the work of the Institute has progressed so favourably during the year is very largely due to the activity of the Secretary ad interim, Mr. Joyce, and the Assistant Secretary, Mr. Kingsford, and, last but not least, to Mr. Fallaize, who has generously given his valuable services in many ways, more especially to the work of bringing out the Journal. To one and all of these gentlemen I take this opportunity for offering the hearty thanks of a colleague, who, although, by the kindness of the Fellows, occupying a coveted and prominent position, has filled a far less important place than they in the machinery which drives the Institute along the path of progress.

Among the losses from the ranks of workers in the field of Anthropology to which reference has been made in the Council's Report, there is one name which stands out pre-eminently. I refer to Mr. Herbert Spencer, a giant among philosophical thinkers, and one who laboured unselfishly, and with complete devotion to his subject, since he consistently refused the many well-earned honours which were offered to him. Although, by the death of a man of such striking individuality of mind, a gap is left in the ranks which it will be impossible to fill, yet Herbert Spencer has left an indelible mark upon the literature of all time, and will always live in his works and in the school of thought over which his genius and individuality have been disseminated.

With these few references to past events, I will turn now to my main subject.

The two annual addresses delivered by my immediate predecessor in this chair, were devoted in a very practical manner to making clear the position, aims and requirements of Anthropology, on the one hand by means of a classification of the various aspects of the study, together with suggestions as to the means whereby the science may be developed, and, on the other hand, by offering a highly stimulating object lesson, based upon the development of Anthropological study, as it is being pursued in the United States of America, from which it must be admitted that the pursuit of this subject in our own country suffers from comparison with the achievements wrought by "the energy and enthusiasm of American anthropologists”, who are backed up by the "liberality of enlightened business men." To money we must needs look for the sinews of scientific pursuits as of war, and enlightened liberality is a thing to be encouraged in every way. At the same time, it seems to me that, in certain directions, a vast amount might be done for Anthropology without necessarily involving any immediate serious increase in the funds at present available; though I firmly believe that, if successfully carried out, the very success of the scheme would react upon the liberality of fund providers, and, again, the stimulus of augmented resources would lead to a further increase in the efficiency of the work.

It is mainly to the museums of this country that I would appeal, and I would ask whether something cannot be done, in the direction especially of individualization and co-operation, to extend greatly the scientific value of these institutions, and, in so doing, to assist very materially in the advancement of Anthropology, I confine my remarks, of course, to museums which are either entirely or partially anthropological in character, using the term in its widest sense, to include all matters relating to the study of Man.

On the whole, we cannot complain as to the number of museums in the British Islands. They are, in fact, very numerous. Most of our principal cities possess at least one, while many of the smaller towns and suburbs also boast of a museum, often enough one which reflects great credit upon its founders and organizers. I do not wish to advocate any increase in their number. If anything, I would rather suggest a diminution, since one cannot blind oneself to the fact of their being a certain number of so-called "museums," which would but force a groan from Calliope and her eight sisters, through the completeness with which they have failed to justify their existence as institutions worthy of the name. I do not wish to speak harshly of the happily few instances. Museums are frequently started with the best intentions by, or in response to, local enthusiasts, who, while they live, render the institution a success by their own individual efforts; but, as too often happens, no adequate permanent provision having been made for future maintenance, and for providing an efficient staff of workers, there is a tendency for such a museum to stagnate and decay after the death of its founder, whose place may not readily be filled by another self-sacrificing enthusiast. Enterprise begins to flag and apathy rules; the familiar "Cannibal club from the South Seas" languishes against its neighbour, which as likely as not is a stuffed "Egyptian ibis";  the label drops from the authentic “Dagger which killed Captain Cook" on to the unsuspecting "Turtle from the West Indies" immediately below, whose back it henceforth adorns. The museum becomes a mere scrap-heap of "curios," a burden and then an eyesore, and is apt, finally, to be handed over to the tender care of a committee à discretion of moths, beetles, dust and damp, having full powers to dispose of the specimens as they think fit.

This is no exaggerated picture. Many a valuable, even unique, specimen has gone through these stages of devolution, and it is sad indeed to think how much valuable material has been lost to Science through this process of neglect, atrophy and decay. Often enough, it is true, it is only a certain portion of a museum which receives inadequate attention, other departments being developed and well cared for. The Curator may be a specialist, having naturally enough his own hobby, which he understands, and to which all his attention is devoted. We are none the less concerned, for, only too frequently, it is the Ethnological or Archaeological section which suffers.

This, however, is the gloomy side of the picture, and I gladly turn to the brighter aspects. I believe that the class of "museum" to which I have just referred is, rapidly disappearing, and that out of the ashes there will arise institutions which, even though they may be small, will take a definite place among the teaching units of our country. In response to the growing public interest in Science, which will have demanded their remodeling and re-juvenescence, they will play their part in further stimulating that interest by the quality of their exhibits.

One must pay a well-deserved tribute to that excellent organization, the Museums Association, which through the medium of its meetings, discussions and published Report, has already done much towards promoting a healthy activity in the Museum World, and towards shaming out of existence any retrogressive tendencies. May its work prosper!

Our ethnological museums and collections play an important part in the education of the nation, but their influence may be enormously increased. With our Imperial and Colonial interests and responsibilities, the study of comparative and local ethnology is of prime importance to us, not only because we are exceptionally favoured in regard to the material for that study, which lies ready to hand, by reason of our dominant position in many and varied regions of the world, inhabited by races in all stages of culture, but still more because the proper understanding of native races and their relationship to each other is a matter of vital  interest to us, if we are to govern justly and intelligently the very heterogeneous people who come under our sway. Nor is this all. The great variety in the conditions of culture observable amongst the peoples and tribes of various regions, supplies us with a most valuable mass of material for tracing the developmental history of human culture in general. Gaps in the archaological and historical record may, as is now fully recognized, frequently be filled by means of a comparative study of modern races, the study, in fact, of the "Past in the Present," to use Mitchell's happy phrase.

How, then, can our museums best assist in the advancement of the study of Man? I do not propose to attempt even to reply in full to this question, as this would take me too far afield; and I may well neglect all reference to the general principles of museum administration, the proper methods of exhibiting, labelling and preserving specimens, and so on. These are matters which have received much attention elsewhere at the hands of experts, and they fall outside my province this evening. I am concerned more particularly with the general nature of the collections illustrating Man and his culture.

I am especially desirous of pleading the cause of variety and individuality in Museums. One thing which must inevitably strike any one who has visited any considerable number of our Ethnological Museums and collections, is the fact of there being a marked general similarity, both in the nature of the collections themselves, and in their treatment for purposes of exhibition. Some are, of course, either richer in material or more carefully arranged; but, taken as a whole, one is accustomed to expect to find ethnological collections arranged, when classified at all, upon a purely geographical system, the specimens being, almost invariably, classified into groups based upon the regions whence the objects have come. Far be it from me to condemn a geographical system, so long as it can be carried out successfully, in such a way as to teach the museum-going public the main differences which exist between the various races of Man, whether it be in the physical or cultural aspects of Ethnology. It is absolutely necessary that some of our museums should be so arranged, but this system can only be followed with success in an institution of relatively large size, since much space and material is required in order to do justice to it.  That the main ethnological collection in the British Museum should be arranged upon a geographical system, goes, I think, without saying, and there are other large museums, located in the more important centres, to which this principle of classification is eminently suitable.

With the very numerous smaller museums, the case is, I venture to think, different. The space is apt to be far too limited, and the specimens too few, to enable the Curator to arrange the collection in a manner whereby the principal ethnological features of the various regions are brought out in an instructive manner. As a rule there will be an absence of balance between the regional groups. One or two regions may be well represented, others poorly or not at all, and a false impression is likely to be conveyed, even though the arrangement of the specimens may be well and thoughtfully executed. A purely geographical system on a small scale is, no doubt, a relatively easy one to follow, but this can hardly be advanced as a valid reason for its adoption. An easy method of arrangement is too frequently a mistaken one.

Admitting, as I cordially do, that, in certain Ethnological Museums--mainly those which are of large extent and well endowed—a geographical system of classification is most desirable, I wish now to point out how, in my opinion, the other museums may fill important places in the list of such institutions, and how they may incidentally better their own prospects, through the increasing support which would attend their enterprise in advancing the cause of Science.

It will be generally admitted that the most effective and legitimate method of attracting specimens to a museum lies in making it evident that specimens and collections accepted will be made to serve a really useful purpose, and be utilized in a scientific manner, either for educational purposes or for the advancement of Science through research. The science of Ethnology is so wide and comprehensive, and embraces the consideration of so many distinct factors and phenomena, that the classification of ethnological material in museums may well be subject to considerable variation, with the best results to the science. An immensely wide scope is afforded for specialization, if individual museums are devoted to the adequate treatment of selected branches of the science, instead of attempting to illustrate Ethnology in its wider aspects, an attempt which must in many cases be foredoomed to failure while, even if successfully carried out ,it would only lead to a repetition of what was being done elsewhere.

I readily sympathize with the view that the authorities of local museums should devote their attention largely to collecting materials for illustrating the archaeology and ethnology of their own districts, and this, I am glad to think, is to a great extent being done. At the same time it appears to me that a reasonable concentration is desirable, and that this work should be definitely delegated to certain selected centres, in order that the material may not be too scattered.

Apart from this question of local antiquities, and specimens illustrating Man's occupation of the several districts, there are many problems which might be successfully undertaken, either in conjunction with local phenomena, or as an alternative to the more usual, generalized methods of treating ethnology.

There is one type of museum in which the British Islands are singularly deficient, and, by some irony of fate, it is one which would fully illustrate the ethnology and culture of the people of Great Britain, that is so conspicuously lacking. We have every reason for being proud of that noble institution the British Museum in Bloomsbury, with its immense wealth of archaeological and ethnological material. At the same time, we must admit that its name implies rather that it is a treasured possession of the British Nation, than that it illustrates its characteristics, developmental history and culture. British archaeology is, it is true, well represented, but there has been little space devoted to a connected treatment of the arts, industries and general culture of the nation through the historical period. This clearly indicates that this phase of the subject must be illustrated elsewhere. We want a National museum, national, that is, in the sense that it deals with the people of the British Islands, their arts, industries, customs and beliefs, local differences in physical and cultural characteristics, the development of appliances, the survival of primitive forms in certain districts, and so forth. Some attention has, I know, been given to these matters, as, for example, in the Antiquaries Museum in Edinburgh, the small; private museum at Farnham, Wiltshire, formed by the late General Pitt Rivers, and some other museums and private collections; but nothing of a comprehensive nature has been attempted and we have allowed many interesting, and at one time important customs and appliances, associated with our national life, to die out, without having taken adequate steps to preserve their record. We have no institution in this country which occupies the position of the larger "Folk-museums" of the continent.

Paris, Moscow, Stockholm, Christianiand Copenhagen, not to mention other large cities, all have their Folk-museums, illustrating in a most interesting and instructive manner the life of their people, particularly of their peasantry. Nor is it only the great cities, for many of the smaller towns, such as Bergen, Helsingfors, Sarajevo and others, have well-equipped and very popular museums of a similar kind. Surely, we have reason to be as interested in our national characteristics as other countries are of theirs, and, surely, the ethnology of and culture development in Great Britain are as important to us as these subjects are to continental peoples.

And yet we still lack an institution in which the non-political history of the British Nation is studied and illustrated in a comprehensive manner. It is not too late even now to start such a National Museum, on the model of the famous Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, the life-work of Dr. A. Hazelius, which combines both indoor and outdoor museums, and which not only illustrates in a splendid manner the life of Scandinavian peoples, but also furnishes a valuable object lesson, as a record of what can be achieved through the enterprise and devotion of one man, starting with but very meager funds.

There must be a great amount of material, representing the obsolete appliances and customs of Great Britain in the hands of private collectors, which would find its way into such a museum, if it were once started upon a satisfactory and systematic basis; and, with reasonable energy, we might in a few year’s time boast of a National Museum which would defy the world to taunt us with the accusation that, while we eagerly look after and make collections illustrative of everybody else's ethnology, we neglect our own. Ethnological museums on an extensive scale are every now and then founded by enlightened private individuals, but, with the establishment of each new one on the old familiar lines, there is the loss of an opportunity for filling a serious gap, and for providing the country with something which it definitely lacks,

The establishment of a National Museum of the kind referred to, would probably entail an entirely new institution, or, at least, the complete remodelling of an existing one; but most of our present museums, whether large or small, could assist very materially in the advancement of anthropological studies, even without increasing the demands upon space and funds. If, for instance, some of our local museums were to relinquish the idea of forming general ethnological collections, which are as a rule beyond their scope, and for these would substitute collections illustrating particular branches of the subject, special phases of ethnology, a great advance would, I think, have been made. The subject selected would necessarily be one proportioned to space available and the financial conditions of the institution. There is a wide range of subjects from which to choose, since all the phenomena which touch upon man's life in the past and the present are available, any one of which is capable of furnishing material for educational and popular exhibits, as well as for research into the highways and byways of the science. A museum devoted, say, to illustrating well such a subject as the "influence of environment upon Man's physique and culture," would be teaching a very useful lesson in human bionomics. "Man's place in Nature" and the "Antiquity of Man" are obvious subjects, which can be treated in extenso or very concisely, according to circumstances, but in either case in an educational manner.

I might mention, further, a few of the many other subjects which almost cry out for proper treatment and development. The evolution and geographical distribution of special arts, industries and their appliances, or of customs, might be illustrated by means of comparative series; the early history of warfare or of the chase, by means of examples of the weapons and other appliances used for the purpose by savage and barbaric peoples. Or, again, the evolution of currency from its origin in mere barter, down to the development of a true coinage; early methods of navigation; the history of agriculture; the phylogeny of musical-instruments; these are all subjects of interest to all, and capable of being well illustrated. Then, comparative series illustrating the development of weaving, metallurgy, and other such industries, would be eminently adapted for museums in the main centres of the present industries themselves, and the local familiarity with the technique of the crafts, would be invaluable to the student and researcher in their comparative history and phylogeny. The growth of realistic and decorative art from the earliest rudiments including the evolution of patterns and the factors determining variation, is a peculiarly fascinating study, which has received a good deal of attention, though, as yet, no museum has been devoted to this subject, excepting as an incidental feature. In investigating these and all other manifestations of human enterprise, one is carried far behind the scenes in the workings of the human mind, and I cannot but think that anthropology would gain enormously, both in popular estimation and in scientific results, if a number of our museums would take up special branches of the science of a more or less comprehensive nature according to the available space

And funds, but, in all cases, with the definite intention of rendering their collections as complete as possible within the imposed limits. Far more benefits would accrue to anthropology from such individualization amongst museums, than could possibly be derived from what I must describe as the wearying monotony of geographical groups on a small scale, which is at present the prevailing system of classification, varied locally with no arrangement at all, or, perhaps, what is even worse, one based upon a system of grouping together specimens given by a particular benefactor, however miscellaneous they may be.

By taking up in a thorough and exhaustive manner special lines, each of these museums would acquire a really attractive individuality, gaining greatly in prestige thereby, and the collections would develop into connected series which would teach something definite, and attract both the public and the expert, and last but not least, the benefactor. The museum would become the focusing point, as it were, for the subject which it was developing; material suited to the special character of the institution would alone be retained, and take the place of the unconnected miscellanea which the museums are now apt to accept--leading so frequently to a mere jumble of exhibits. Every incoming specimen would have a definite importance and an appropriate place in the series. Students would soon get to know where the collections illustrating particular subjects were to be found, and their infinite labour and the expense involved in hunting for particular objects among the museums would be greatly lessened. Since every accepted specimen would have its proper place in the collection, whether exhibited or not, those museum abominations, the so-called "trophies" of miscellaneous weapons and other objects would come to a not untimely end. "Trophies" are easy to design and set up, but in nine cases out of ten, however artistic they may be from a purely decorative point of view, only disfigure the walls of museums, and, to the visitor desirous of learning, are merely an advertisement of the fact that there is something wanting in the scientific methods of the institution. They are apt to be the refuge of unenlightened curators, pandering to an assumed weakness on the part of the public.

I do not hesitate to admit that there are many difficulties which would have to be overcome, if the scheme suggested is to be carried out, and I do not wish to under value these. Many of them, however, would, I think, disappear automatically, once such a scheme was working, and when the results began to declare themselves. Some are purely sentimental difficulties and should easily be overcome. At first it would, no doubt, in many instances be far from easy to obtain leave to exchange the existing miscellaneous specimens for fresh material of a homogeneous kind, suited to the special requirements of the museum. There is a prevailing feeling that gifts to museums must on no account be parted with, since it is thought that the generous donors would feel slighted thereby. Could anything be more fallacious than this superstition? The donor, presumably, wishes to benefit the institution, but some, or all, of his gifts may be of a kind of which that museum cannot make proper use, and, in such a case, neither is the institution benefited by the well-intentioned generosity, nor is Science. But, under a well-organized scheme of museum specialization, there would be a suitable home for every specimen somewhere, and a judicious system of exchanges between museums would lead, not only to each establishment receiving suitable in lieu of unsuitable acquisitions, but the generous donor would have the satisfaction of seeing his gifts properly located where they would be of scientific interest, his own liberality to the museum which he specially wished to benefit, being represented by a gain to that institution of specimens of real value to it. He would thus be benefitting two or more museums instead of possibly hampering one.

A regularly organized system of exchanges would of itself lead to co-operation among museums; and, without free interchange and mutual support, the individualization of collections would be liable to fail in the full realization of its aims. Exchanges of specimens would bring exchange of ideas, and, as all the separate units in the general scheme would, in their several ways, be aiming at the advancement of Anthropology as a whole, active and whole-hearted co-operation would hasten the steps by which the goal is to be reached.

A friendly and stimulating rivalry would remain as an accompaniment to the desire to steadily improve the various collections and to maintain a high standard. Rare and unique specimens would not be valued on account of their being objects not possessed by other museums, but they would be estimated in accordance with their scientific bearing upon the special series of which they formed part, or, in the event of their being unsuited to these, they would be sent as valuable exchanges to museums in which they would find a proper context, mutual benefit thus resulting. It has occurred to me that something of the nature of a "court of arbitration" might be a useful adjunct to such a scheme as I have suggested, but this is a some-what large subject with which I cannot here deal, and I have probably already overstepped the limits of your patience. I may be accused, perhaps, of nursing a wild and unpractical scheme, or of lotus-eating, or, possibly, of building castles in the air. I hold, nevertheless, that the scheme only requires nursing to bring it to maturity; that a lotus may become digestible and even nutritious if properly prepared; and that those castles, however much in the air at present, can be erected upon solid foundations of practical utility. Anthropological museums and collections are not only a means of edifying and educating the public, but they are to a great extent the laboratories of anthropologists, and, while I recognize to the full the important part which they play, even now, in the progress of the science, I am deeply impressed with the belief that, under a suitable system of co-operative individualization a harmony, as it were, of individual efforts their potentialities as factors in the advancement of Science, would be almost infinite. The work of these museums would thus be conducted in unison, with the same principal object in view, and with the certainty of attaining that object, namely, the increase of knowledge and the better understanding of Man and his works.

 Transcribed by AP September 2012

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