In Our Time: Pitt-Rivers

The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of my favourite museums, because it’s so crammed full of things to see. So I was pleased there was an In Our Time programme about the man behind it – Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers. The experts who discussed him were Adam Kuper, (Boston University), Richard Bradley (University of Reading) and Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford).

Pitt-Rivers was born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox in 1827, a younger son of a younger son. His father died when he was very young, and his mother moved them to London & then there’s not much sign that he had any formal education at all apart from a brief enrolment at Sandhurst (which was a public school at the time not a post-graduate military academy). He had a career in the military, where he was put in charge of musketry and his obsession with collecting objects started during that time – possibly after visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851. He married “above his station”, and it was his wife’s family & social connections that got him contacts in the scientific circles of the time. When he was about 50 he unexpectedly inherited a large estate & a fortune – they said in today’s money it would be on the order of £2 million per year to spend. This was the Rivers estate, I think they said it was the largest estate outside the aristocracy. As a condition of this inheritance he had to take the surname Pitt-Rivers.

Pitt-Rivers was interested in collecting everyday objects, and in comparing them between cultures. A large amount of his collection was donated to Oxford University in the 1880s, forming the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Inspired by Darwin he was interested in figuring out the evolutionary path of the objects we use – like sticks -> spears -> muskets. So he grouped his objects by type and tried to order them from primitive to sophisticated. And as well as ordering the objects this way he (and Western society in general at the time) ordered cultures in a similar fashion. He & others believed that “primitive” cultures in the modern world corresponded to the ancestral cultures of nations like Britain. Towards the end of the programme the experts were talking about Pitt-Rivers’ legacy and all agreed that his anthropological ideas were considered out-of-date (possibly even by the man himself) before his death.

As well as his collection Pitt-Rivers is remembered for his contributions to archaeology. They were joking that once he inherited the Pitt-Rivers estates he didn’t have to travel outside his estates to excavate prehistoric sites. He did, but also did a lot of excavations on his own lands. He kept his focus on everyday items as opposed to the antiquarian’s desire to find treasure or monuments from the Classical world. His contribution to archaeology is more long lasting than that to anthropology, because he was a very methodological excavator. One of the experts (and I forget which) said that a Bronze Age settlement that Pitt-Rivers had excavated was returned to in modern times because the documentation meant that they knew where to look to extend their knowledge of the site.

Pitt-Rivers saw himself as a scientist, but the experts on the programme were fairly dismissive of his theoretical achievements. Where he excelled was in the practical and organisational sides of things. And his wife’s social connections meant that he was involved in the scientific societies of the day, often in a organisational role. This included becoming the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, which involved both the sort of cataloguing that he was so good at and the prevention of damage to the monuments.

Somehow a very Victorian story – both in the collection and the details like the unexpected inheritance of a fortune.