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The Pitt Rivers Museum

One of the world's most celebrated museums of ethnography and world archaeology

Pitt-Rivers was not an explorer, nor indeed a great traveller. However, from the age of twenty-five he started to amass a huge collection of archaeological and anthropological objects from around the world, mainly by purchase from auctions and antique dealers and by private sale

The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the world's most celebrated museums of ethnography and world archaeology. Its vast collections provide tangible evidence of human activity throughout history and from across the world. They allow us to see how people have dealt with the problems of everyday existence and with the challenges of life and death. Here you can explore human history, simple and ingenious technologies, imaginative and innovative designs and decorations, as well as the material products of local, regional and world belief systems.

The Museum is named after Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, whose gift to the University of Oxford on 20 May 1884 led to the foundation of the Museum as we know it today.

During a passing phase when it was fashionable to denigrate men of importance, I remain loyal to my heroes in the knowledge that if they had never made mistakes they would barely be human. Should anyone find faults in Pitt-Rivers these would be heavily outweighed by the merit of his character and deeds.


He was born Augustus Henry Lane Fox at Hope Hall, Yorkshire on 14 April 1827 into a wealthy landowning family. He was the son of William Lane Fox and Lady Caroline Douglas, the sister of George Douglas, 17th Earl of Morton. Educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845, Lane Fox had a long and distinguished military career, primarily as a staff officer, later serving in the Crimea as a lieutenant. He retired in 1882 as a Lieutenant-General. Two years before his retirement, Lane Fox inherited Cranborne Chase in Dorset, the 27,000 acre estate of a cousin: Henry Pitt, Baron Rivers and consequently the remainder of the fabulous Richard Rigby fortune. He thereafter adopted the surname of Pitt-Rivers in honour of his benefactor.

During the course of his military career, he developed an interest in the development of firearms, particularly the burgeoning replacement of muskets by rifles. He is known to have recovered some flint tools at Acton in 1869, which may have led him to extend his interest to all kinds of artefacts.

Pitt-Rivers was not an explorer, nor indeed a great traveller. However, from the age of twenty-five he started to amass a huge collection of archaeological and anthropological objects from around the world, mainly by purchase from auctions and antique dealers and by private sale.

Influenced by the evolutionary writings of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, he began grouping his collection by 'type' or material. He also tried to arrange the objects in what he saw as an order of technical complexity, to show what he felt was evidence of the progression of ideas. Pitt-Rivers joined the Ethnological Society of London as early as 1861, and served as president of the Anthropological Society of London between 1881-1882.

Pitt-Rivers began carrying out excavations while still serving in the army, but his chance to indulge in excavation on a grand scale came in 1880 when he inherited the Cranborne Chase estate which contained a wealth of archaeological material from the Roman and Saxon periods.

It was only natural that he should become the country's first inspector of ancient monuments, after the passing of Sir John Lubbock's 1882 Ancient Monuments Act. Lubbock would later marry Pitt-Rivers' daughter, Alice and was an important archaeologist in his own right.

Pitt-Rivers also had a passionate interest in public education. His research was published in the four-volume 'Excavations in Cranborne Chase' (1887-1896), and he exhibited his artefact collections and finds in local museums.

As a modern-day figure of speech, such a cabinet of curiosities conjures up pictures of irredeemable quaintness, of random conjunctions of unrelated specimens brought together by chance and in an essentially haphazard manner, but not the collections of the indefatigable General.

He donated his collections to Oxford with the condition that the University build a museum to house them, and that a permanent lecturer in anthropology be appointed to educate the public. On 30 May 1882 the University accepted the offer of Pitt Rivers' collection.

In 1853 4 acres of land were purchased from Merton College for the new University Museum of Natural History on Parks Road, and the imposing Victorian building was completed in 1860. The Pitt-Rivers collections were held in the South Kensington Museum at the time, but plans were already in place to move the founding collection from London to Oxford in 1885. A three-storey annexe was built onto the eastern side of the University Museum to house the collection.

Henry Nottidge Moseley, Head of the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, was put in charge of the collection and Edward Burnett Tylor was appointed the first Lecturer in Anthropology in Britain. Museum staff are actively involved in teaching Archaeology and Anthropology to graduate and undergraduate students at the University even today.

Although Pitt-Rivers's original stipulations had suggested an on-going concern with his collection once it was given to Oxford, he displayed very little interest in the venture, transferring this to his new private museum in Farnham, Dorset, called the 'Pitt-Rivers Museum'. This closed in the 1960s and the collections were dispersed.

The ground floor (known as the Court) of the Pitt Rivers Museum opened for the first time to the general public, University staff and students in 1887. All the display spaces within the Museum, including the Court, Lower Gallery and Upper Gallery were open by 1892. The original donation consisted of approximately 20,000 artefacts, which have grown to some 300,000 items, many of which have been donated by explorers, soldiers, sailors, colonial officers, scholars and missionaries. About a third of these are housed in the Museum itself at floor and ceiling levels, in specimen drawers (some of which may be opened), as well as in traditional Victorian cabinets and cases.

In the early years of the Museum it was felt that students should be able to see as many objects as possible, and not just rely on a few selected by the curator and his staff. Indeed, the curatorial staff provided a number of examples of each type of object, rather than just one or two, so that students could study their defining characteristics.

Today, many people including myself, value the Museum precisely because there is so much to see. Visitors appreciate viewing as many objects as possible so they can learn to recognise similarities or differences, or make new connections. Others find that the impact of so many objects all together is more inspiring than any one individual object – a testament to human imagination and skill.

The Museum's collections are arranged thematically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. This layout owes a lot to the theories of General Pitt-Rivers himself, who intended for his collection to show progression in design an evolution in human culture from simple to the complex. This evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer accepted in archaeology and anthropology. The Museum has retained the idea of organizing its displays by type of object, but without arranging them in supposed evolutionary series. The display of many examples of a particular type of tool or artefact, showing historical and regional variations, is an unusual and distinct feature of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Museum currently attracts around 330,000 visitors a year. The gallery staff aim to provide a welcoming and helpful service, and to act as a source of invaluable information about the displays. The Museum also runs a busy education programme and a range of popular public events.

As a department of the University of Oxford, members of staff use the collections in their teaching and research. Recently, much research has focused on the collections of historical photographs and manuscripts, which equally illustrate human activity worldwide. The 'Photograph and Manuscript Collections' comprise approximately 150,000 photographs dating from 1858 onwards and over 60 manuscript collections from some of the major figures of anthropology, reflecting the intellectual, economic and political contexts of the Museum's collections.

The Museum has an incredibly high density of objects on display, and the exhibits are regularly changed.

In 2004, the Museum received £3,700,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build a research annexe adjoining the building. With additional funding from the University, building work was completed on this £8m project in 2007, when it was officially opened by Michael Palin. It brought the academic staff of the Museum back to the site, and provided a laboratory for conservation of the specimens. The annexe did not affect the Victorian displays of the Museum.

The second phase of the development began on 7 July 2008 necessitating the closure of the Museum and galleries. The Pitt Rivers Museum reopened on 1 May 2009. In this work, the 1960s exhibition gallery was dismantled, restoring the original view through to the Museum's totem pole. Original display cases were returned to their original place at the front of the Museum. The space upstairs vacated by these cases now provides additional space for the Clore Learning Balcony, where educational activities take place. A new entrance platform allows visitors to enter on the same level as the Museum of Natural History and improved access for wheelchair users and parents with pushchairs. The entrance platform also houses the Museum shop and reception areas.

Despite all this activity, there are quiet times when it is still possible to enjoy the collections free of the press and other visitors, and to absorb the atmosphere of the Museum's unusual interior. Much of the period character has been retained, including the Victorian iron architecture, and the tiny labels written by hand by the Museum's first curator Henry Balfour and his staff.

The labels are an important feature of the Museum's displays. Each object has a tag with basic information about it, including its unique 'accession' number to help staff keep track of it in the Museum's records.

Some of the labels contain a lot of information about the objects. The terms 'coll.' and 'don.' (or 'd.d') record who collected or donated an object. The origin of the object (country, region, and/or group) is always included. Sometimes the name on an old label is no longer in current use. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to change all the out-of-date names, but all new labels do, of course, use up-to-date names.

On many labels there is a number in three parts; for example, 1932.5.62. This is the accession number of the object. It shows the year the object came into the Museum (1932), the collection it is part of (the fifth collection of the year), and its number in that collection (the sixty-second).

Of course, the year in which an object was acquired by the Museum is not necessarily the year in which it was made. For example, an object given to the Museum in 1932 may have been made many years, or even centuries earlier.

The sheer number of objects on display often means that there is little room for additional information within the cases. However, further information about every object in the collection is available in the Museum's databases, which can be viewed online via the Museum's website. It also provides a three-dimensional virtual tour, as well as a number of 'information sheets' about particular parts of the collection and the themes of the displays. These are a separate group of downloadable guides to specific groups of objects on display for general interest and student use.

The following is a list of some of the 'virtual collections' mainly resulting from research projects (other than Artefact): 'The Tibet Album' is an interactive site illustrating more than 6,000 photographs from the collections of the Pitt Rivers and the British Museum.

'The Southern Sudan' site provides a detailed catalogue for the 1,300 objects and 5,000 photographs from the region held by the Museum, along with supporting materials.

'The Wilfred Thesiger' site makes available photographs by one of the most renowned explorers of the 20thcentury. The project was funded in 2002 by His Excellency Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan the Head of the State of Abu Dhabi to produce a spine catalogue of Thesiger's photograph collection.

'The Other Within' site – an Anthropology of Englishness, is a major research project exploring the Museum's large English collections.

'Artefact' is a unique learning resource for art students and teachers of the visual arts.

Other resources are being added to the Museum's website all the time, as the Museum aims to make all its work widely accessible.

There is always room for improvement in any Museum of such repute. Their ambitions for the future include additional, sympathetic lighting, new exhibitions, growing online access to the collections – particularly the extensive holdings of early photographs, and upgrading the Museum's offsite stores.

The Pitt Rivers is a university institution with a strong research culture. Over the years they have been developing a variety of collaborative projects with First Nation peoples from Canada and the USA, with Tibetan refugee groups, with Kenyans reclaiming their heritage via photographs, and with Pacific Islanders.

Today the 300,000 artefacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum represent an enormous investment not only of money, but of intellectual and physical endeavour. The Museum is a provider of a sound foundation and pivot for modern ethnography and world archaeology and a powerful contributor to the public's awareness and appreciation of the world in which we live.

- Peter Holthusen