Collecting England

Jane recently came across the website for the brilliant Pitt Rivers Museum Inside England project. It won’t come as a surprise given my recent posts how interesting I’ve found this. Partly for the highly entertaining object biographies (Tylor’s bewitched onion anyone?) and partly because its got me thinking about the history of collecting English folk/vernacular objects. As the name of the museum suggests, it was founded by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, one of the founding fathers of British archaeology. His influence was greatest in the development of field techniques, but he was also important as one of the earliest field archaeologists to beging to place his practical archaeology in a broader theoretical framework. Not surprisingly for someone of his dates he seized upon Darwinism and evolutionary approaches. He was also dedicated to promoting and popularising archaeology and education more generally. He opened his private estate as a kind of educational pleasure ground and also built up collections of a wide range of objects and artefacts, often arranged typologically to illustrate the process of evolution through the change in form of objects. His early collections certainly included contemporary (ie 19th century) objects, and much of his early thoughts about material culture and evolution were worked through in his collection of firearms.

However, his collections of English material appear to have primarily use to illustrate and develop his theories and not particularly because he saw the wider value of treating England as a subject of ethnographic study, comparable to the fields of enquiry being developed abroad (particularly within a British imperial context) by British anthropologists.

I’ve not been particularly succesful in finding out more about the growth of the collecting British material in a broadly ethnographic context. I’d presumed that it must have had its roots in the early 20th century ‘folk’ revival, though I’ve not come across any details. I suspect that the early collections were largely put together by private individuals and did not reach museum collections for some time. For example, Hugh Massingham had a collection of various rural tools and equipment, which he put together in the between the 1920s and early 1950s when he died. However, the museum which they are now in The Museum of English Rural Life was not founded until the year he died. Beamish, the museum near Chester-le-Street dedicated to the local way of life was not founded until 1970, the same year as the Weald and Downland Museum. Many other major private collections of this kind of material is still finding its way into museums (such as the Harrison Collection) which has just been acquired by the Ryedale Folk Museum. I am sure there are also many small collections of ‘social life’ material in minor local museums, which are not presented or extensively promoted. Noticeably it was not until the post-war period that entire museum’s were dedicated to this kind of material. There is still no national museum dedicated to English folk life and culture, unlike Wales, where the St Fagan’s National History Museum is part of the National Museum of Wales. From my limited knowledge, this makes England relatively late to start taking the collection of indigenous objects seriously; for example in Sweden, the celebrated open air museum at Skansen was founded in 1891.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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