The Relational Museum

A major ESRC funded project October 2002 - March 2006

Project Progress Reports

Ethnographic museums used to be seen as 'us' studying 'them'. A more productive approach is to view museums as trans-cultural artefacts composed of relations between the museum and its source communities. This project charted the history and nature of the relations composing the Pitt Rivers Museum through analysing the history of its collections.

The project initially concentrated on five major collectors to throw light on the present significance of these collections. These collectors are Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (the donor of the founding collection of the museum), Edward Burnett Tylor (the first Lecturer in Anthropology at a British university, specifically appointed as part of the conditions for the founding donation), Charles Gabriel Seligman (professor at LSE, undertook significant field research in Melanesia, Sri Lanka, and, most importantly, Nilotic Sudan), Henry Balfour (the first Director of the Museum, who worked from 1884 - 1938 and amassed significant collections of his own which he donated to the Museum) and lastly (but not least) Beatrice Blackwood, a Demonstrator in the Museum for many years who carried out fieldwork and made large field collections in North America and the Pacific. Later a sixth collector was added - John Henry Hutton, a member of the Indian Civil Service who worked in the Naga Hills, India. Each of these collectors was important both to the development of anthropology in this country and to the history of the Museum.

Collections reflect colonial structures and the flows of material culture within them, local agency and the intellectual, academic and economic situation of the collectors, all of which help to shape the significance of these collections today. A museum's collections are created through a mass of relationships between the people who originally made and exchanged objects, the collectors of the objects and the museums in which they are currently held. In order to understand both the past and the present of a museum it is necessary to understand these relationships. The past links between producers/ users, collectors and museums can tell us much about the histories of the people making the objects, the intellectual and personal histories of those doing the collecting and the institutional history of the museums in which they now reside. The project explored the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum's collections and the links between individuals and groups that created those collections between 1884, the date of the foundation of the Museum and 1945, the start of the post-colonial period.

Such a study allowed for an understanding of the varying forms of colonialism through which objects moved and were given significance. The entire Pitt Rivers' manual catalogues were put onto computer allowing the project to carry out in-depth computer searches for the first time. Quantitative analysis of how such material came from which parts of the world at which dates, were combined with archival material on the groups, collectors and museum professionals involved in creating the collections in the Pitt Rivers. Museums, especially ethnographic museums, are also vitally concerned with present links with people and institutions. An understanding of the complex histories through which artefacts were produced, given, sold and exchanged can allow us to maintain old relationships between groups and the museum, as well as creating new ones. This may lead to more people studying the museum's collections first hand or through the website. Histories are important, but as much for their present significance as for which they can tell us about the past. We demonstrated the richness of museum collections as sources of complex histories and as means of activating relationships in the present.

Aims and Objectives

The overall aim of the project was to explore the mutually constitutive history of people and objects through the analysis of the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum for the period 1884 - 1945. This major aim was broken down into a number of subsiduary ones. We analysised the statistics of the museum's collections alongside relevant archival material to produce a quantitative and qualitative understanding of the collections. We explored collections in order to throw light on the movement of material culture through the respective colonial structures. In parallel with this, we investigated the collection practices of six individuals (named in the introduction above) to analyse the mix of biographical, intellectual, institutional and economic forces which structured these major collections. Both forms of analysis threw light on the history of anthropology (and, to a lesser extent, archaeology) and of the representation of different parts of the world through the museum. Our aims were not just to elucidate the history of the Museum, but to explore the present role of the Museum. We also aimed to present the results of our work through the Pitt Rivers' website and through paper publications.

Potential impacts of the research

The project aimed to further develop ways of analysing collections as historical documents. The museum is convinced that collections represent an unusually rich source for writing the histories of institutions, disciplines, individuals and source communities. Part of the problem in carrying out this form is research is practical, and here we see the project as having model value for research in other ethnographic, archaeological and social history collections. A further major impact was through the enormous enhancement this research lent to the Museum's own website. The museum'son-line artefactual databases were complemented with the more detailed accounts of the collections, their histories and the groups and individuals which lay behind them, all generated by this project.

Staffing of the project

The project was led by Chris Gosden and Mike O'Hanlon, both at the Pitt Rivers Museum. There were a number of researchers who worked on the research team by the end of the project: Alison Petch and Fran Knight (who worked on the project throughout its 3+ years) and Sandra Dudley, Chris Wingfield and Megan Price who worked on the project for part of the time. All the researchers had completed related research within the museum in the recent past and have therefore brought useful knowledge and data to the project. The research included detailed analysis of the Museum's object and photograph databases, and significant archival research.
Collaboration with other UK institutions and institutions in Europe and further afield

During the course of the project close collaborative links were forged or maintained with staff working in other ethnographic museums in the UK on similar research into their institutions' histories. In addition, staff involved in the project worked closely with staff at their sister institutions in the University of Oxford - the Ashmolean, the Museum of the History of Science and the University Museum of Natural History.

The Relational Museum's site can be viewed @ http://history.prm.ox.ac.uk