Introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum


Lt-General Pitt Rivers and the founding collection

The early history of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum comprise objects, photographs and manuscripts from all parts of the world from prehistory to the present day. As Beatrice Blackwood put it in her account of The Origin and Development of the Pitt Rivers Museum, 'the Museum takes the world for its province and for its period, from the earliest times to the present day, excluding the results of mass production'. The collections are arranged typologically to show how, at different times and in different parts of the world, people have solved a wide range of problems.

The Museum also cares for many historically important collections, for example a collection made during Captain James Cook's second Voyage of Discovery in the Pacific (1772-1775). There is also a collection of more than 6,000 musical instruments from all parts of the world, and a unique collection of original ethnographic photographs. Like most ethnographic museums in England, however, the content of the collections has to a large extent been determined by British colonial history. Thus the holdings are strongest in areas of historical British interest.

To find out more about PRM history, click here

Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers and the founding collection

Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was born in 1827 in Yorkshire to a wealthy land-owning family. In 1841 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845. He fought for a short time in the Crimean War, and served in Malta, England, Canada and Ireland. He finally retired in 1882, at the age of 55, with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General although he remained on the active list until 1896. Pitt Rivers married Alice Stanley, eldest daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley in Cheshire, in 1853, and had nine children. In 1880 Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited the Rivers estate and name from his great uncle. The country estate was a substantial one and he also received an annual income of a little under £20,000: for the remainder of his life he led the life of a wealthy landowner. In 1882 Pitt Rivers was appointed the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments and in 1881–2 he was President of the Anthropological Institute. He died in 1900, at the age of 73.

Pitt Rivers' interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the history of firearms. It is generally believed that Pitt Rivers did very little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain objects whilst on active service, during a tour of Europe, in Malta and during the Crimean War. Although he collected a few items whilst 'in the field', the vast majority of objects in his collection came from dealers, auction houses, and from fellow members of the Anthropological Institute (such as E. H. Man, John Petherick, Richard Burton and E. Belcher).

It is difficult to estimate the overall size of Pitt Rivers' collection. Some 20,000 objects were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884, but there was also a sizeable collection of objects displayed at his personal museum in Farnham, Dorset after this date. Pitt Rivers always believed in the collection of everyday objects as well as 'works of art' and this is reflected in his collection.

Archaeology became very important to Pitt Rivers; he purchased archaeological items from dealers and sale rooms, but also carried out excavations of his own, principally in Ireland during his service there in the 1860s, and in England (London, Yorkshire, Sussex and on his own estates in Dorset). He documented his archaeological work fully, causing detailed site plans to be prepared and wooden models to be made.

Pitt Rivers very soon exhausted the space available in his own house to show his collections. In 1873, he decided that his collection should be publicly exhibited and arranged with the South Kensington Museum to display around 10,000 objects at the Bethnal Green branch of that museum, in 1878 his collection was moved to the South Kensington Museum. In 1880 he decided that his collection should have a permanent home and eventually settled upon the University of Oxford. On 30 May 1882 the University accepted the offer of Pitt Rivers' collection; an annexe, measuring approximately seventy by eighty-six feet, was built onto the eastern side of the University Museum to house the collection. The University undertook to carry on Pitt Rivers' general method of arrangement of objects during his lifetime and agreed that any changes after that date would only be instituted if 'the advance of knowledge required it'. Although Pitt Rivers' original stipulations had suggested an on-going interest in his collection once it was given to Oxford, he did not display much interest in it, transferring his interest to his new museum in Farnham, Dorset.

Find out more about Pitt Rivers and his collections

Find out about his collections elsewhere

Find out more about South Kensington Museum

The early history of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

In the years following the foundation of the Pitt Rivers Museum a number of important collections were transferred to it from other University institutions. For example, the ethnographic collections of the Ashmolean Museum were transferred in 1886. These included a number of items from the Ashmolean's founding collection, that is, the Tradescant collection. After these auspicious beginnings, Henry Balfour continued to add to the collections at every opportunity for nearly fifty years. By the time of his death in 1939, he had increased the Museum's holdings to many times the size of the original gift. The collections have been growing ever since, and today the Museum is one of the world's foremost resources for ethnographic and archaeological research and teaching. In 1986 the Balfour Building, an annexe to the Main Museum, was opened on a new site with galleries devoted to hunter–gatherers and musical instruments.

Since the founding of the Museum the collections have continued to grow at the rate of some 4,000 items a year. Much of this material has been collected on behalf of the Museum by trained anthropologists and is complemented by detailed documentation, including both published and unpublished accounts and photographs. Other material has been donated by, or purchased from, individual travellers, colonial administrators and missionaries, while major collections have also been transferred to the care of the Museum from such bodies as the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and the Royal Armouries.

Find out more about the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford

Find out more about the Museum today

Back to top of page