Bethnal Green and South Kensington Museums

Extract from WR Chapman, 'Pitt Rivers and his collection', 1984

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The Museum at Bethnal Green

The Bethnal Green Museum to which Pitt Rivers was to transfer his collection represented an attempt by the Commissioners of the South Kensington Museum [now the Victoria and Albert Museum] to extend their influence to parts of London which had never received the full benefits of an educational institution such as that at South Kensington. The facility was literally a South Kensington cast-off, consisting of several prefabricated cast-iron structures, popularly known as the Brompton Boilers, left over from the International Exhibition of 1862 and made obsolete by the new building programme in South Kensington. Sensing the opportunity for their reuse Henry Cole (1808 - 1882), for many years Director of the South Kensington Museum, had pressed for their re-erection at Bethnal Green, an area of east London noted for its poverty. Other civic leaders, including Sir Antonio Brady (1811 - 1881) and the Reverend Septimus Howard had joined him on behalf of their reuse. In 1871, Major-General Scott was induced to provide a new bright-red brick-front, a feature completed in the summer of 1872. The first exhibition was of Sir Richard Wallace's collection of paintings, pottery and porcelain figurines, displayed with the aim of conveying the history of art as well as of providing models for the area's craftsmen (many of them descended from Huguenot weavers). The second show, held the following year, was a display of various animal and vegetable products, tracing their origin, evolution and in many cases their etymological derivation. In terms of their general theme, therefore, both displays closely approached Pitt Rivers' own collection and can be considered as tantamount to harbingers.

Pitt Rivers made his final arrangements with the South Kensington authorities during the winter of 1874. The collection was finally set up during the late spring of the same year. Most of the work was apparently carried out by the curator at Bethnal Green, G.F. Duncombe, a figure with whom Pitt Rivers exchanged occasional letters. In its final arrangement, the collection exemplified many of the newest ideas in display and organisation. New display cabinets were employed, both standing cabinets and desk cabinets, and modern descriptive labels were included for each display. A.W. Franks, of the British Museum, and John Evans (1823 - 1908), a noted numismatist - anthropologist and close friend of Pitt Rivers - both of whom earlier had been induced to provide materials from their own collections (Franks of ceramics and Evans of flint implements) - were also consulted by Pitt Rivers prior to the transfer of his own collection.

Pitt Rivers' catalogue for the collection, completed only after his move to Guildford, provides a fairly detailed picture of the collection and its extent at the time ... [Apart from physical anthropology and weapons] the remainder of the collection remained uncatalogued. Only a summary was provided in Pitt Rivers' published catalogue of that year, although the latter still provides a fairly good idea of the collection as it existed at the time. ...

The best indication of Pitt Rivers' attitude towards the custody of his collection during its first years in Bethnal Green lay in his approach to acquisitions. New materials were periodically added to the collection by Pitt Rivers; Duncombe was expected merely to set them up. The additions are extremely well-documented, the museum staff having carefully recorded each item as it was transferred. Unfortunately, the earlier 'Day' or 'Van' book at Bethnal Green has been lost, and the record, therefore, begins only in the latter part of 1875. The South Kensington receipts, however, date to 1st January 1874 when the collection was initially deposited in Bethnal Green, and extend to the end of the summer in 1879. As a result, they provide a remarkably accurate record of the collection as it appeared during those years, and a good indication of its extent at the time it was presented to Oxford.

... whether all of the items [recorded in the day books] were recent additions, or simply materials not previously transferred, is less clear, although at least in some cases - judging by the large number of thematic groupings - they must have been part of his earlier collection. There appears, nonetheless, no evident order to the [way in which objects were sent to Bethnal Green by Pitt Rivers] ...

Transfer of the collection to South Kensington Museum

In late October 1878, the receipts for the Pitt Rivers collection no longer list Bethnal Green, suggesting that the transfer to the main museum building at South Kensington had already begun. ... For Pitt Rivers it was obviously his first step towards a more permanent solution to the management of his collection, and it is clear that he pressed for the change, despite the fact that Bethnal Green was obviously to lose what Pitt Rivers himself saw as a valuable adjunct to the community's educational life. South Kensington, however, offered a better opportunity. Expanded considerably during the late 1860s and early 1870s ... the Museum was the ideal location for a collection of the type represented by that of Pitt Rivers. While Pitt Rivers himself resented the so-called 'aesthetic' flavour of the institution, he was equally willing to reconsider his own assessment, in view of his eventual ambitions. ...

The details of the transfer can be reconstructed with relative accuracy. Pitt Rivers' and his family's own move back to London, initially to Sussex Place and then to Earls Court, in the autumn of 1878 coincided roughly with the reinstallation of this collection, and it was probable that he was on hand to supervise at least the beginning of the transfer. The Museum assigned Richard Thompson, the Assistant Director and hence a member of its curatorial staff, to undertake the responsibility for arrangement. Pitt Rivers was evidently satisfied with the Commission's choice, and had left for France on a four-month expedition recording ancient monuments before the job was completed. The collection was placed in two of the larger rooms of the Museum's new west gallery, following, it appear, roughly the same scheme as that at Bethnal Green. .. Thompson finally wrote to Pitt Rivers: 'Your collection was opened for public inspection Thursday last - at South Kensington, and looks well in its new home'. From that date, until over five years later, it was to remain a standard attraction at South Kensington.

In the meantime, Pitt Rivers continued to add to the collections whenever possible. ...

Actual authority for the collection, in the meantime, remained curiously undefined. Technically it was still Pitt Rivers' property and only temporarily on loan to South Kensington. On the other hand, the collection was , in an important sense, already in the public domain, subject to interpretation and revision by the South Kensington staff and, therefore, effectively out of Pitt Rivers' hands. Nonetheless, Pitt Rivers continued to exert an influence upon the collection, if only through his periodic additions of new materials. He also continued to advise Thompson and others, suggesting new ideas for series or for changes in display. The situation obviously presented ample opportunity for resentment on both sides: later complaints by Pitt Rivers suggest that disagreements were not unknown - 'and in fact were fairly common'.

Pitt Rivers' occasional arguments with those in charge of his collection at South Kensington served to underline a far more fundamental concern: whether he was planning to make his collection a truly public foundation by relinquishing his ties with it, or whether he was to keep it for himself. It was a decision that Pitt Rivers had been avoiding for a number of years. Still, something had to be done soon, and it was clear that the South Kensington authorities would no longer tolerate his attempts to retain control over the details of arrangement or add to or subtract from his collection as he pleased. The outcome was, as the Council on Education informed Pitt Rivers in late 1879, that the Museum would have to be given complete control if the collection was to remain on display there. ... [eventually this process was to end in the gift of the collection to the University of Oxford].

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