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A Breach of Trust in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum and the Destruction of the Past

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History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

Lawrence Goldman takes issue with the current state of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which has been ‘decolonised’. It is now in breach of the Deed of Gift under which Oxford was given the collection in the 1880s.

A shorter and different version of this article can be found in the Daily Telegraph, 30 January 2024


For the last four decades undergraduates reading History in Oxford have had the opportunity to study Victorian intellectual history in a second year ‘Further Subject’ which aims to immerse them in the now unfamiliar ideas of the nineteenth century. They spend a term reading and writing about Macaulay, Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, Darwin, Spencer, Ruskin, Morris, and many more.

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One of the highlights of the course used to be the annual visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which houses the anthropological collection gifted to the university in 1883 by the remarkable Augustus Henry Lane Fox, a soldier who fought in the Crimean War, a scholar, and a landed gentleman later known as General Pitt-Rivers.[1] Tutors would make two points to the students.

First, the Pitt Rivers, as it is known, preserves a way of looking at the history and development of human civilisation that was current in the late-Victorian era – that its purpose is to show us not only a remarkable collection of artefacts collected from all over the world, but to illustrate an earlier approach to history itself.

Second, the collection is unique in its presentation: rather than organise objects in space and time, that is, by place of origin and historical era, the objects are organised morphologically by type. So all firearms, hunting knives, and spears, from all places and periods, are compared in their discrete locations in the museum, as are all tools, cooking utensils, religious artefacts, and costumes etc. etc. In this way it is easier to appreciate how material culture has changed and evolved over time.

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It is not difficult to see why these foundational principles of the collection should be a provocation to today’s museum curators. To value and preserve former views of history, which inevitably present and categorise people differently from current thinking and practice, is simply unacceptable to contemporary museum professionals. Their aim is to impose the nostrums of the present on the past, thus expunging earlier views of human history which are derided as racist, colonialist, sexist, ableist etc. This is an insult to the concept of scholarship, all the more inexcusable in a great university.

The Pitt Rivers collection provokes them for another reason, as well: the method by which it presents its exhibits, which serves to emphasise the unity of mankind. However far-flung their places of origin, the collection tries to demonstrate the common shapes and forms of everyday implements, and common ways in which people lived and worshipped. The Pitt Rivers collection, reflecting the views of its founder, is intended to demonstrate a shared path taken by all the diverse civilizations, their tools and implements evolving by small degrees over time from simple to more complex forms. But in the academic world inhabited by today’s museum curators, the concept of civilizational unity runs counter to diversity and exceptionalism and must be opposed on those grounds alone. In any case, to accept the validity of a late-Victorian view of history would undermine their attempts to force visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum to adopt the views of the curators.

Two other principles also need to be borne in mind, taken directly from General Pitt-Rivers’ Deed of Gift to the University of Oxford. The collection was accepted on the condition that ‘any changes in details’ made after the General’s death ‘shall be such only as shall be necessitated by the advance of knowledge and shall not affect the general principle originated by the said Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers’. It was also laid down that the university could ‘expand and complete by the addition of further specimens such of the Series of Objects in the said Collection as are at present more or less imperfect or incomplete’.[2] As this essay will argue, there can be little doubt that the University of Oxford is now in breach of the spirit of these principles. Is it also in breach of the letter of these conditions

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The Pitt Rivers is greatly-loved and admired in Oxford and worldwide. It features in the fiction of Philip Pullman (The Subtle Knife) and Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse – The Daughters of Cain) and has been used as the location for film and televised versions of both authors’ works. Its charm and interest derives precisely from its purpose to preserve a specific view of the past. According to the poet, James Fenton, in his poem The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, ‘Beware. You are entering the climate of a foreign logic.’3 Its old-style glass cases and cabinets, heaped upon each other even to the very ceiling of the building, are everyone’s idea, simultaneously, of an ancient collection of treasure and a lumber room full of the most interesting and curious objects. No museum I know better evokes the fascination of the past. To walk between its cases is to enter that ‘foreign logic’ which compels attention.

But for three years or so, the Pitt Rivers’ aesthetic of wood and glass, has been invaded by noticeboards produced in garish colours, as if for a teenagers’ school textbook, with arrows, bubbles, and capitals to reinforce their message, a message quite as intrusive as their design. For these boards essentially disavow the collection: it is yet another example in Britain of curators seeming to hate the collections they curate.

Imagine walking into a pub and being met there by old-style temperance campaigners holding up signs warning of the ‘demon drink’. In this case, the visitor to the Pitt Rivers is treated on arrival to a diatribe against colonialism. Despite de-colonisation in the mid-twentieth century, we are told that

the past is still present, and the invisible structures of colonialism still persist today. These invisible structures, known as coloniality, shape our ideas about race, class, culture, gender and sexuality. Coloniality divides the world into ‘the West and the rest’ and assigns racial, intellectual and cultural superiority to the West. Coloniality creates and shapes these ideas through three overall processes, by establishing Hierarchies, controlling Knowledge, and imposing White Culture and Place Names.4

Is this an appropriate way to greet any visitors to any museum? Is it appropriate in a collection constructed, by design, to present a view of the world at a moment in time when colonialism was the norm? And is this the way to treat visitors – to hector them and tell them what to think? Where is the sympathetic explanation of Pitt-Rivers’ plan and an invitation to visitors to think themselves into another age with different views of the past?

The boards then go on to define Culture, Hierarchy, Knowledge and Place Names. We are told under the heading of Culture that ‘Colonialism seeks to overwrite existing cultural systems in the belief that colonial cultures are superior. The cultural systems that often get imposed are capitalism, communism, religion, scientific logic, racism, patriarchy, and gender binary’.5 Note the use of the present tense: colonialism is still at it, apparently. And note how everything at all in the world, from science to sexuality, is part of colonialism. But then knowledge itself is just a construct designed to keep the natives in their place: ‘Part of colonisation is the colonisation of knowledge, which assigns the production of knowledge to the colonisers, specifically the Western world, and in turn silences, erases and invalidates all other knowledges’.6 Tell that to all the researchers in Oxford who labour to expand knowledge and apply it for human betterment, and see what they say.

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Like so many museums today, the visitor is lectured and, in this case, explicitly told what to think:

As you explore the Pitt Rivers think about the power dynamics and ask yourself four simple questions: Who is being seen? Who has the power to see? Who is being represented? Who represents?7

Quite what these questions mean is anyone’s guess, but the instruction to follow this agenda can be usefully compared with one of the museum’s annual reports from the 1950s which noted that visitors

express appreciation of the fact that this is not a place where they can ‘do’ the collection between showers, but one in which they can always find more of what interests them and learn about the subject rather than put up with our idea of what is best for them to see.8

The boards are distinguished by their jargon, circumlocution, and appalling English style: Try this from the second bright yellow board concerning ‘Hierarchy’ which deploys the example of ‘fire-making’ to make a point, though what point isn’t clear:

In an effort to showcase ‘comparative technologies’, the display reduces fire-making to a purely technological process. However, terminology here is creating a false narrative. While considering the deep social and cultural importance of fire-making important (sic) for cultures recognised as ‘civilised’ such as European countries, Japan, South Korea, and Ancient Egypt, ‘simple’ handle fire-drills are referred to as used ceremonially. 

However, when talking about drills used by the peoples of Africa, South-East Asia, and Australia hand fire-drills are referenced in terms of daily living and practicality.

Therefore, ‘simplicity’ of fire-making as a purely technological and survival process is assigned to countries that are lowly situated on the constructed hierarchy, while countries deemed more ‘civilised’ or closer to European norm (sic) only use this ‘simple’ technology as part of their social and cultural landscape while in fact the making of fire has deep social and cultural importance in all cultures and often certain techniques are purposefully used as a very conscious choice’ 9

I think it’s trying to say that the museum has traditionally explained the making of fire in more advanced societies as a distinct cultural practice, while in less advanced societies it has been  presented as a practical matter only. But who can tell? Why can’t it be explained clearly? And just in case you weren’t counting, that last sentence, on a museum notice designed to inform visitors of all ages from all over the world, runs to 75 words.

The linguistic soup and confusion continues elsewhere. On a board entitled ‘Problematic past research practices’ concerning the collection of human remains and the measurement of human physical features, ‘the entitlement of white people to objectify black, brown and female bodies for labour, learning, research or entertainment’ is condemned. It then continues:

‘Such ideas can still be seen in the racism and practices of exclusion that persist today, since they continue to influence our conceptions of each other’ 10

Is it really telling us that the research methods of Victorian anthropologists have an impact on current social behaviours? If so, please explain further rather than merely insist.

If the Pitt Rivers curators have a special hatred, it’s for the idea of social evolution, a very common feature of late-Victorian thought which informed the General’s view of his collection.

Racialised hierarchies linked to intelligence, labour and gender have been a core part of the Pitt Rivers Museum from its founding. General Pitt-Rivers himself believed in social evolutionism, which identified universal evolutionary stages to classify different societies as in a state of savagery, barbarism, or civilization. European societies positioned themselves at the highest rank of civilization.11

In fact, concepts of social evolution long predate the Pitt Rivers collection, originating in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. What was known as stadial history, or history seen as a sequence of stages, informed Scottish enlightened thought from the 1740s onwards. In his lectures in the University of Glasgow and subsequently in The Wealth of Nations published in 1776, Adam Smith, among many, visualised human social development in four stages. They were ‘first, the Age of Hunters; secondly, the Age of Shepherds; thirdly, the Age of Agriculture; and fourthly, the Age of Commerce’, the stage of modern civilisation that Scotland and the other developed lands of Europe had by then attained.12

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But social evolution in this form did not necessarily imply prejudice or superiority. There were those in the anti-slavery movement, for example, who adopted these same ideas to argue for the essential equality of all races, all of which would follow the same path to modernity, though at different speeds. Slavery, they argued, had disrupted the social evolution of African races, and this was another of many reasons why it should be abolished. Crucially, in this view there were no innate, genetic reasons why Africans should not attain the same civilizational levels as Europeans if given their chance.13

Stadial ideas were undoubtedly influenced by Darwinian evolutionary thought in the Victorian era, which seemed to provide biological evidence to support pre-existing concepts of social evolution. Many Victorians, among them Herbert Spencer, had written about ‘progress’ from simple social forms to more complex ones before the Origin of Species was published in 1859, and they eagerly adapted Darwin’s ideas and the evidence he adduced to their evolutionary outlook.14 And such ideas, mixing concepts of social and biological evolution undoubtedly influenced General Pitt Rivers and his contemporaries. But as this suggests, social evolutionism has a long and complex history which the curators of the Pitt Rivers Museum either choose to ignore or simply do not understand. And, in any case, to condemn the founder of their collection because he was a man of his time who thought like his contemporaries has no place whatsoever in a university, nor any other place of learning, for that matter.

Moreover, we speak and write everyday of ‘less-developed’ societies, see ‘development’ aid as a core function of our government, and currently have a Minister of State for Development and Africa. The concept of ‘backwardness’ is central to economics and modern economic history.15 All of these usages imply a structuring concept of social evolution that underlies the way we see the world. It would seem that the curators of the Pitt Rivers are at war with more than just history.

Like so many ideological warriors, the curators at the Pitt Rivers are blind to their own double-standards.16 To take a small but comical example, in the upper gallery of the Pitt Rivers there’s a remarkable display of postcards from around the world depicting people from different continents and cultures, many in traditional dress for the benefit of the camera. According to the po-faced label at the centre of the display entitled ‘Trading Stereotypes’.

As this display shows, the persistence of such stereotypes and captions has been a consistent feature of postcards throughout their history; a heady manufactured mix of nationalist sentiment, historical imagination, marketing, exoticism, and humour, traded endlessly along global tourist routes.17

How wonderful, therefore, to discover postcards on sale in the Pitt Rivers – ‘6 for £3’ – many of them showing objects with funny faces, distended grins, bulging eyes, and all the stereotypical ‘native’ features we might expect from a card emporium on one of these ‘global tourist routes’. ‘Hello Mum, I’m at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford’. Physician heal thyself.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has breached trust in two ways, at least. Go back to those undergraduates studying Victorian history, combine them with postgraduates taking the Oxford Masters’ course in intellectual history, and add in doctoral students at work on the nineteenth century and their tutors for good measure. Across Oxford these people are engaged in the attempt to understand Victorian thinkers and their ideas in all their complexity and context. Meanwhile, the leading Victorian collection in Oxford, and one of its greatest museums, makes no effort to understand or explain Victorian thought, dismissing it as racist, colonialist and all the rest of it.

There is a monstrous arrogance in the behaviour of the curators and trustees who seem to think that the collections are theirs to interpret as they wish. By what right have they assumed this power? We might ask their question of them: ‘Who has the power to see?’ What are all the students studying Victorian history conscientiously and with due care to make of a university that allows curators to belittle and dismiss their endeavours in this way?

Then consider the Museum’s foundation. Is the Pitt Rivers Museum in breach of the Deed of Gift that passed the collection to Oxford? Since 1883 the collection has grown and indeed ‘developed’ as new objects have been donated and collected. Notwithstanding the Museum’s timeless feel, its items have been displayed in changing ways over the decades, though not so as to undermine the Museum’s founding principles. This is as it should be: no one insists that the Pitt Rivers should be preserved in aspic. But the Deed of Gift evidently envisaged the addition of ‘further specimens’, not the imposition of aesthetically and intellectually alien billboards, disrupting the visual experience of visiting the Museum and forcing anti-colonial ideology onto a collection that is, to its core and in its essence, a product of a colonial era.

That places the other condition of the bequest in even greater jeopardy today: that any changes ‘shall be such only as shall be necessitated by the advance of knowledge and as [such] shall not affect the general principle originated by the said Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers’. To proselytise for an extreme version of anti-colonial ideology in the museum, and directly criticise the views and theories of General Pitt-Rivers himself, must be in breach of this article in the Deed of Gift. Moreover, do these intrusions and interpolations amount to ‘the advance of knowledge’? They simply provide, in very poor language and style, an alternative interpretation (and that word dignifies what are, in essence, just a set of prejudices).

The boards are full of opinion, not new knowledge. The current management of the museum tell us on one of the boards that they hope ‘to make space for self-determination and to bring silenced knowledge systems and voices to the centre of museum practice’.18 The meaning of this is unclear: it perhaps refers to the ways in which indigenous peoples have understood themselves and their environment. But are ‘silenced knowledge systems’ consonant with ‘the advance of knowledge’ as General Pitt Rivers – and, we might add, the University of Oxford – understood that term when the collection was gifted and accepted, and as we understand ‘the advance of knowledge’ today? It will be a nice matter for the lawyers to decide.

One of the boards describes the Museum’s purpose as ‘resistance against dominant colonial structures’.19 The current Director of the Pitt Rivers had this to say in an article published in the Daily Telegraph:

I don’t believe there’s a way of non-political curation…Museums are political instruments. In their establishment they were political instruments. What we are being is explicit about our politics.20

Is being explicitly political in the curation of the Pitt Rivers collection consistent with the General’s Deed of Gift? I think not. The Board of Visitors of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the University of Oxford together have a considerable legal problem: the subversion of one its greatest collections and the breach of its agreement with the donor.

What is to be done if the Museum is to come back into line with its legally-defined purpose? The billboards must go, to be replaced by an accurate history of the collection that will explain to visitors (and also, evidently, to the Board of Visitors of the Pitt Rivers Museum) what they are seeing, rather than seek to convince them that they are witnesses to a crime against humanity. The museum needs a director in sympathy with the collection, its principles and its period. The composition of the Board of Visitors also needs to change. How can the Visitors have allowed this disfigurement to occur? How can they have walked past billboards written in jargon and execrable style that attack the very collections which they, as trustees, have been charged to protect, conserve, and explain? Not a one of them seems to have understood the marvellous ‘foreign logic’ of the Pitt Rivers. As another author once put it, ‘The past is a foreign country’ and the Visitors have lost their right of residence there.

The current Board of Visitors captures one of the ironies of academic life in recent times: that for all the talk of social ‘diversity and inclusion’ universities have become intellectually homogeneous and sterile, characterised by a single set of supposedly progressive opinions.

It is surely relevant – and not merely a coincidence – that not a single member of the Board of Visitors is a historian and that the Oxford History Faculty is not represented among its members, though the Pitt Rivers collection, in its formation and purpose, is so historically-specific.21 The Board is top-heavy with serving academics and museum professionals. It includes Melanie Keen, the Director of the Wellcome Collection for the History Medicine, who described one gallery in her collection as ‘racist, sexist and ableist’ and promptly shut it down, and Dr. Nick Merriman, Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum, which is, so far, the only British museum to have sent back its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria despite grave uncertainty about the future security of these objects.22 Readers of History Reclaimed will be very well acquainted with the scandals associated with the Benin Bronzes.

In addition to historians, including some drawn from outside universities, the Board requires members drawn from the world of business, from local and national politics, and from the local Oxford community (which has such an affection for the museum), recruiting from bodies like the Oxford Preservation Trust. And those who construct the Board must be directed to ensure that it represents the full spectrum of academic and social views. Oxford used to believe in genuine diversity in a university that, under its Congregation, was at heart, a democracy.

In addition to this, as a first principle, everyone connected with the Pitt Rivers Museum is bound to accept the terms of the General’s Deed of Gift. That is a legal duty and it cannot be ignored.


[1] Mark Bowden, ‘Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, 1827-1900’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. M. W. Thompson, General Pitt-Rivers: evolution and archaeology in the nineteenth century (1977). The General spelled his name Pitt-Rivers, but the museum has become known as ‘the Pitt Rivers’ without the hyphen.

2 ‘Deed of Gift. Gifting the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum to the University of Oxford’, https://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/rpr/index.php/primary-documents-index/15-founding-collection-1850-1900/222-deed-of-gift.html

3. ‘The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford’, James Fenton, The Memory of War: Poems 1968-1982 (Edinburgh, 1982), 39. The rogue hyphen in the title is more than compensated for by the excellence of the poem.

4. Noticeboard entitled ‘…is a footprint of colonialism’

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. Noticeboard entitled ‘…is a space for cultural representation’

8. Michael O’Hanlon, The Pitt Rivers Museum. A World Within (London, 2014), 72.

9. Noticeboard entitled ‘Hierarchy’.

10. Noticeboard entitled ‘Problematic past research practices’

11. Noticeboard entitled ‘Hierarchy’

12. Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (1763) (eds., R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael and P. G. Stein) (Oxford, 1978), 479.

13. Henry Brougham, An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers (2 vols., London, 1803), vol. II, 445-7.

14. Herbert Spencer, ‘Progress. It’s Law and Cause’, Westminster Review, 1857

15. Aleksander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. A Book of Essays (Cambridge, Mass., 1962)

16. Lawrence Goldman, ‘The Trouble with the Tate’, https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/the-trouble-with-tate-britain/

17. Display entitled ‘Trading Stereotypes’.

18. Noticeboard entitled ‘…can be an instrument of resistance’

19. ibid

20. Professor Laura Van Broekhoven quoted in ‘The Museums Caught in Britain’s Culture Wars’, https://www.martinanthonyfletcher.com/the-museums-caught-in-britains-culture-wars-telegraph-magazine

21. The Board of Visitors of the Pitt Rivers Museum comprises:

Professor Laura Van Broekhoven, Director, Pitt Rivers Museum

Professor Andrew Briggs (Nanomaterials)

Professor Patricia Daley (Human Geography of Africa)

Dr. Linda Flores (Japanese Literature)

Professor Trish Greenhalgh (Physician and Professor in Primary Care)

Professor Helena Hamerow (Early Medieval Archaeology)

Professor Clare Harris (Visual Anthropology)

David Isaac (Law)

Melanie Keen, Director of the Wellcome Collection for the History of Medicine, London

Professor Dave Kirk (Sociology)

Dr. Nick Merriman, Chief Executive, Horniman Museum, London and Chief Executive, English Heritage.

Ms Iliane Ogilvie Thompson, Chair of the Pitt Rivers Museum Advisory Board

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian

Professor David Pratten (Social Anthropology)

Professor Jane Shaw (Religion)

Professor Paul Smith (Geology and Natural History)

Professor Nick Thomas (Anthropology)

Ms Evie O’Brien, Executive Director, Atlantic Institute, Oxford

See: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/board-visitors


22. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/in-praise-and-thanks-the-real-sir-henry-wellcome-and-his-legacy/

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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed