Thinking about the relationship between art and anthropology has led me consider how artists work within museum structures. I have previously explored this through the work of Eduardo Paolozzi in his installation ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’, but I am also interested in the ways in which a museum can become an installation in its own right. In this way, the Pitt Rivers Museum presents a perfect example.
The Pitt Rivers Museum
As Michael O’Hanlon explains in ‘The Pitt Rivers Museum: A World Within’, “Most museums are primarily receptacles for the artefacts they hold; it is the individual things rather than their container that visitors come to see. Among the ways in which the Pitt Rivers is unusual is that the whole is greater than the sum of it parts. It is better known for its displays as a totality – the single composite panorama that greets visitors as they arrive at the Museum’s entrance – than for any particular artefact…” (O’ Hanlon, 2014, p. 14)
Although, this bricolage style of collection and display presents problems within modern anthropology, the book describes how the museum came to exist in its current state, and how it has attempted to address concerns around the interpretation and acquisition of artefacts.
The history of the collection
As the name suggests, the initial collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum was donated by General Pitt Rivers, who amassed a collection of around 30,000 objects and photographs. The collection began with a selection of weapons, developed from Pitt-Rivers previous experience as a rifle tester: “I was… led to take notice of the very slight changes of system that were embodied in the different inventions, and also of the fact that many improvements which, not being of a nature to be adopted, fell out of use, and were heard of no more, nevertheless served as suggestions for further improvements which were adopted; and it occurred to me what an interesting thing it would be to have a museum in which all these successive stages of improvement might be placed in the order of their occurrence. (Pitt-Rivers 1891: 118)” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 24)
The lectures he delivered to the Royal Institution in 1875, discussed the “derivation from a single form” (O’Hanlon, p. 28) which showed a range of weaponry developing along different axes from a central image of a stick. As such, he believed that object collections could reveal how different technologies evolved. Grouping the objects as “typologies” also influenced the way that the collection would come to be displayed in the Museum: “all the weaponry together, wherever in the world it might come from; everything to do with writing, all the means of making fire together; all the locks and keys etc.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 50)
Finding a home
At this stage, his collection wasn’t on public display, so he began to search for a museum so that members of the public could access the objects for educational use. The first museum to house the work was the Bethnal Green outpost of the South Kensington Museum (which would later become the Victoria and Albert). The collection then moved to the South Kensington Museum in 1878. After the South Kensington Museum refused to accept any more of the General’s continuous acquisitions he moved the collection to Oxford University. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 36)
Upon arriving at the Oxford University site, the Pitt Rivers collection was presented to its first curator, Henry Balfour. Balfour used the General’s initial plans as a basis for displaying the objects according to type rather than region, as well as implementing some of his own ideas. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 52). He also began making his own acquisitions through personal networks and travel, which amounted to tens of thousands of artefacts over the course of his curatorship. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 55) The size of the space afforded to the Museum was distinctly lacking, therefore new display cases were installed in, around and even above the existing ones. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 60)
However, during this time, an emphasis on fieldwork (associated with anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski), diminished the importance of object collections, in favour of researchers embedding themselves in other cultures in order to “understand a society directly, as a functioning whole, rather than through arranging its artefacts in the study or museum.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 66)
The Museum’s new curator, Thomas Penniman, inherited his position in 1939, after the previous curator, Henry Balfour, had died following several years of illness, leaving the museum “largely derelict”. This situation, coupled with the diminishing importance of object collections and the outbreak of the Second World War, impeded any substantial development, and led Penniman to attempt to improve the Museum displays within his own means. (O’Hanlon, 2014, pp. 66-68) He began reducing congestion in the cases by removing artefacts to give more space to others. In addition, he changed the black surroundings to wood and cream in order to lighten the surrounding and give greater emphasis to the objects on display. (O’Hanlon, 2014, pp. 68-69)
After many years of attempting to ‘resolve’ the museum’s problems with overcrowding, the distinctive arrangement of the Pitt Rivers’ displays began to attract more visitors precisely because of their unusual nature. In response to this, Penniman halted his renovations of the museum. The bricolage style backdrop also began to inspire other artists and writers who produced new creative works about and around the museum. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 85)
These artistic interventions began to contribute in some part to the museum’s ongoing dialogue with the ‘source communities’ of its previous acquisitions, as a way of attempting to reflect on its own history and the history of anthropology in general. This included projects which invited international artists to respond to, and re-interpret, the collections, such as Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso, who produced the suspended installation ‘Union Jack’. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 15)
As O’Hanlon explains “The Pitt Rivers is a museum of anthropology and archaeology, devoted to cultures across time and space. But all such museums are unavoidably also about the culture and times that put them together… In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the story was about the supposed development of cultural groups from simple to more complex forms. Today the messages the Museum hopes to convey are about cultural creativity, the diversity of cultural solutions to the same problems we all face as human beings, and about the capacity of the assembled collections to prompt questions and inspire the imagination.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 17)