Pitt Rivers Museum - Museum Research

Previous Museum Research Projects

Pictures worth a thousand words: Developing a digital image bank at the Pitt Rivers Museum, 2011-12

This Esmée Fairbairn Foundation-sponsored project will seek to develop a digital image bank at the Museum. Devising a methodology for adding images to the on-line collections records, and a management system for those images; to scan and digitise the Museumʼs non- digitised images and to deposit them in the digital ʻimage bankʼ; and to add to the ʻbankʼ existing digital images.

Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) Thesiger Project, 2010–11

This ADACH-sponsored project focuses on photographs taken in the United Arab Emirates by the renowned traveller, writer and photographer Sir Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s. It will result in a new set of high-resolution digital versions of Thesiger's negatives, as well an enhanced catalogue of the images based on detailed new research. A new database bringing together both images and catalogue details will be produced, enabling this important historical resource to be researched and enjoyed by people in the UAE for the first time. The Museum is pleased to announce the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with ADACH in 2010 that will enable further close collaboration on the study of the Thesiger collection, building on the earlier generous support of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Something for every body: letting loose the Museumʼs cross-cultural collections of body arts and ornaments, 2010-11

The Pitt Rivers Museum is delighted to have been awarded a grant of £78,120 from the MLAʼs Designation Development Fund (DDF). The project will focus on the Museumʼs exceptional collection of body arts material, ranging from equipment for tattooing to lip plugs, breast implants and Victorian keepsakes. Go to the Body Art website.Pitt_rivers

Rethinking Pitt-Rivers:
Analysing the Activities of a 19th-Century Collector 2009-12

The Pitt Rivers Museum is pleased to announce that an application to The Leverhulme Trust for funding of a project to 'rethink Pitt-Rivers' has been successful. The three-year project will start in a few months time and more information will follow in due course. Read more about the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project.

Pitt Rivers Museum Historic Blackfoot shirts to visit Canada, 2009

Our grandfathers have come to visit: Kaahsinooniksi Aotoksisaawooya
Five spectacular Blackfoot men's shirts, some decorated with porcupine quillwork, hair, and painted designs, are the focus of a new research project that brings together British and Canadian museums and universities with Blackfoot people in Canada and the United States. Read more about the Blackfoot project.

Ecologies of Modern Heritage: Studying the Cultural & Material Environments of Recent Historical Change, 2009

This Research Cluster focuses on the cross disciplinary study of modern heritage by employing the concept of heritage ecologies to facilitate new collaborations in their interpretation and representation. Ecologies of Modern Heritage brings together leading researchers – from engineering, ecology, microbiology and conservation to planning, anthropology, archaeology and the creative arts – and engages with a range of stakeholders from outside higher education, including the professional heritage sector.

International Research Network 2009: Haida Material Culture in UK Museums

The Pitt Rivers Museum is delighted to receive an award from The Leverhulme Trust for £104,748. The award will support an International Research Network, including The British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Haida Gwaii Museum, and members of the Haida Nation, a Canadian First Nation. The Pitt Rivers Museum collections include a Haida totem pole and approximately 300 other Haida objects. Read more about the International research network project.

The Other within: an anthropology of Englishness at the Pitt Rivers Museum : 2006-09englishnes project

The Economic and Social Research Council has awarded £370,500 to Professor Chris Gosden and Dr. Hélène La Rue, both lecturer-curators at the Pitt Rivers, for their project The other within: An anthropology of Englishness at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Read more about 'the Other within' project.

AHRC core funding award to Museum : 2006-09

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has announced that it has awarded the Pitt Rivers Museum £686,500 p.a. under the second round of its Core Funding Scheme for Higher Education Museums and Galleries.

In their comments on the Museum's application to the Scheme, the AHRC's committee recognized the Pitt Rivers as 'an internationally important and demonstrably well managed museum with a specific and achievable strategy'.

The Museum's Director, Michael O'Hanlon, said. "AHRC core funding underpins everything we do, and we are delighted to receive an award at this enhanced level. It acknowledges the high standards achieved in teaching, research and public services, as well as the importance of the collections. In particular, the award will enable us to develop further the activities and services planned for the Museum's new extension when it opens in 2007."

Career Development Fellowship: 2005-2010Career development fellowship

Between 2005 and 2010 Dr Chris Morton was a HEFCE-funded Career Development Fellow at the Museum in association with Linacre College, carrying out research on the E. E. Evans-Pritchard photograph collection.
Read the final report.

British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Pitt Rivers Museum : 2007-08Thagya

Dr Mandy Sadan has been awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Pitt Rivers Museum for her project ‘Economies of Ethnicity: Material, Visual and Oral Cultures and the Formation of Ethnic Identities in the Burmese Colonial and Postcolonial State’.

For the duration of her £211,116 award, Dr Sadan will be working on the Museum’s Burmese artefact and photograph collections and will be writing a monograph on historical aspects of ethnic identity formation in Burma, as well as developing a number of small research projects relating to these collections with local community groups in Southeast Asia and with other museums and archives in the UK. Read more about the fellowship

Cutting Edge: Revealing hidden stories in a cross-cultural collection of arms and armour : 2006-08

Phantom shieldThe Designation Challenge Fund has just awarded £98,571.00 to fund ‘Cutting Edge’, a new project which will focus on the research, interpretation and upgrading of digital records for the Upper Gallery displays of weaponry and armour. This is the fourth in a series of awards for such work on the Museum’s permanent displays, which have supported the development of our highly successful educational and research services. Read more details on the ‘Cutting Edge’ project.

The Tibet Album: 2004-06 (enhancements 2007-08)Tibet album

The Museum has received a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Elizabeth Edwards, Clare Harris and Richard Blurton (British Museum) have been awarded £238,000 over two and a half years to develop a fully researched on-line resource for Tibetan visual history. Go to the Tibet album site.

Recovering the material and visual cultures of the Southern Sudan:
A museological resource : 2003-06 (enhancements 2007-08)

Sudan projectThe Arts and Humanities Research Board have awarded £224,668 for the Resource Enhancement Scheme project 'Recovering the Material and Visual Cultures of the Southern Sudan: A Museological Resource'. Go to the Southern Sudan project site.

What's Upstairs? : 2004-06

The MLA Designation Challenge Fund has awarded £134.000 for What’s Upstairs? a project to improve visitors' experience of the first and second floor galleries of the Museum. The award follows the success of The Court Project, which improved interpretation and orientation for visitors in the ground floor gallery of the Museum. Read more about the What's Upstairs project.

The Relational Museum: 2002-06

The Economic and Social Research Council has awarded £326,000 for a three yearproject to investigate the concept of the 'relational museum'. Read more about the Relational Museum.

Thesiger Cataloguing project : 2003-04

Thesiger collection imageA generous gift from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, enabled the Museum to undertake a major digitization and cataloguing project on Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s 38,000 negatives and 71 albums relating to his famous travels. The project created a spine catalogue and finding aid for this historically important collection.

Widening Access - Education Officer : 2003-04

The HEFCE Aspiration Fund has awarded the Museum money to employ an EducationOfficer to work with A level groups from schools in Oxfordshire and surrounding counties. The work will concentrate on improving access and resources to the music and photographic collections. This will be a one year post with potential for renewable funding.

PACIFIC PATHWAYS: Multiplying contexts for the Forster ('Cook-Voyage') collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum : 2002-03

The Arts and Humanities Research Board Innovation Awards Scheme have awarded £51,084 to enhance and expand a website devoted to the Forster collection of Pacific artifacts from Cook's second voyage (1772-1775). Read more on the Pacific Pathways project.

THE FORSTER Collection : 2000-01

The Forster Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the world's great collections of eighteenth-century Pacific art and material culture. The objects were acquired by Reinhold Forster and his son George during Captain James Cook's second famous voyage of discovery from 1772 to 1775. Go to the Forster collection site.

Collecting 'Ethnographic' Photographs: A nineteenth century market in photographs.

Elizabeth Edwards
This project explores the dissemination and collecting of photographs of 'ethnographic' interest in nineteenth century Britain. Much writing about the 'colonial archive' or the 'anthropological archive' has been based on assumptions of monolithic processes of disciplinary action on an undifferentiated body of 'ethnographic' photographs. Through a detailed examination of market, display and trade routes of photographs as material objects, this research starts from the opposite assumption: that the construction of 'archives' and definitions of 'ethnographic' were in part fluid, serendipitous and based in the social networks of nineteenth century anthropological community on one hand and, on the other, those the photographic trade. The Photograph Collections at Pitt Rivers Museum and their documentation are a key source in this research.

Photo-Elicitation Among the Kainaiwa Nation:
A Cross-Cultural Re-Engagement with History

Laura Peers and Alison Brown
This project investigates the potential of photographs in museum and archival collections to invigorate community histories of First Nations people in Canada who seek to strengthen their cultural vitality. Using a collection of 32 images taken at the Blood Tribe (Kainaiwa Nation), Southern Alberta, Canada, by Beatrice Blackwood an Oxford anthropologist, as a focus, we aim to assess how photographs can be read at many levels to uncover diverse cultural strands which can create broader understanding of Native community histories and cross-cultural relationships. The project is a collaborative venture between the Kainaiwa Nation and the Pitt Rivers Museum and will result in educational materials that serve the needs of the Kainaiwa community, enhanced records for the museum's photographic archive, and a monograph that addresses the theoretical issues of using archival images to elicit dual perspectives on encounters between Native peoples and anthropologists. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and runs from June 2001 to October 2002.

The Founding Collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch
Lt-General Pitt Rivers gave his collection of ethnographic and archaeological objects to the University of Oxford in 1884. A little over 110 years later the Leverhulme Trust gave a grant so that this original donation, the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum's entire collection, could be researched. The project started in 1995 and was completed at the end of September 1998. Detailed information about each of the c20,000 objects has been entered into a computerised catalogue; this synthesises newly obtained information with a number of existing sources of hard copy data. All the computerised information is available via the Museum's object databases. The project has shed light both on Pitt Rivers as a collector and on nineteenth century ethnographic and archaeological collections and collecting in general.

More information about Lt-General Pitt Rivers and his collection:

Alison Petch. 1997 The early history of Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford [PRM booklet] 1998

Alison Petch. 1998 ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (1998) pp 75 - 85 Oxford University Press 2002

Alison Petch 2002 "Assembling and Arranging: Pitt Rivers collections from 1850 to now" in Collectors: Expressions of Self and Other Occasional Papers Series: Horniman Museum and Museu Antropologico of the University of Coimbra

Alison Petch. 2005 Museum booklet 'Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers and the founding collection of the PRM' [Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford]

Shields, objects, anthropology and Museums online project

The Spencer and Gillen Correspondence

Alison Petch
Howard Morphy -
Director, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University, D. John Mulvaney - Emeritus Professor, Australian National University, and Alison Petch - Pitt Rivers Museum The Pitt Rivers Museum manuscript collections hold 185 letters written by F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer between 1894 and 1903, and one reply from Spencer written in 1904. These letters are a rich testimony to the close collaboration and friendship of the famous Australian anthropologists. Since 1993 Alison Petch, Howard Morphy and John Mulvaney (Spencer's biographer) carried out research which allowed them to place Spencer and Gillen's anthropological research in the context of contemporary British and Australian anthropology. An annotated edition of the entire correspondence was published in September 1997 and was very successful. The publication of the letters restored the balance in the perceived relationship between the two men and their work - a balance and equality always recognized by the men themselves. A small exhibition was held in the main museum in 1997 to celebrate this publication and show some of the objects that they collected in Central Australia and donated to the Museum. This exhibition has now closed.

More information on Spencer and Gillen My Dear Spencer by Howard Morphy, D. John Mulvaney, Alison Petch. 1997. Melbourne, Hyland House Publishing. 

From the Frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer by John Mulvaney, Alison Petch and Howard Morphy. 2000. Allen and Unwin, Australia. (letters from Mounted Constable Cowle and Telegraph Station officer Paddy Byrne to Spencer) 

Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli by John Mulvaney 2004 Aboriginal Studies Press, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies

Historical change and Material Culture in Papua New Guinea

Chantal Knowles
This research, a two-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, involves the analysis of three large collections of material culture, photographs, and documentary evidence from West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea:

* a collection made by Beatrice Blackwood in 1937 held in the Pitt Rivers Museum
* a collection made by A. B. Lewis in 1910 held in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
* a collection made by F. Speiser in 1929-30 held in the Museum fY?Nr V?lkerkunde, Basel

In addition to these collections, the project will compare some recent archaeological and anthropological work carried out by Dr Chris Gosden of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Together, this material covers most of this century, which represents most of the colonial period in this area. As all three museum collections are unpublished, a published monograph is expected to result from the work. It is also hoped that the material gathered will be made available to people in West New Britain through the Province's Cultural Centre.

Since beginning this project a fourth collection has come to light. From 1934-5 J.A. Todd an Australian anthropologist spent a year in south-west New Britain and made a collection which is now housed in the Australian Museum, Sydney. In 1998 the British Academy funded a five week research visit to the Australian Museum to study this collection. The results of this project are now being written up in book form to be published in 2000.

Material Culture and Colonialism in German New Guinea

Chris Gosden and Chantal Knowles
The Economic and Social Research Council have funded this project from 1 December 1998 - 30 November 2000. This project follows on from previous work funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the major aim is to provide a detailed account of the impact of colonialism in one area of Papua New Guinea through an analysis of changes in artifacts. A second aim is to use museum collections to provide insights into the development of anthropology and the broader colonial context in which anthropology developed. We also wish to use the work to demonstrate the usefulness of older museum collections, in tandem with documentary material to provide evidence of historical change and aim to create a full database of the German collections which will be available for teaching and further research. We wish to use the project to explore ways of making the material available to people in New Britain in electronic form as well as print, and use this as a site for further collaborative work on historical change in New Britain.

Hunter-Gatherer Landscapes of the Lesotho Highlands

Peter Mitchell
Building on previous fieldwork in this area, this project seeks to integrate cognitive and ecological approaches to hunter-gatherer archaeology through a focus on prehistoric landscapes. Preliminary results indicate significant shifts through time in regional settlement pattern, the use of specific topographic features in the production of rock art and the appropriation of San painted sites by recent Basotho settlers. These findings will be tested further in forthcoming surveys and excavations. Sites in this area are among the few in southern Africa with long sequences of Upper Pleistocene occupation and high quality organic preservation. Continued excavation of these sites will examine the relation between changes in the organization of lithic technology and the development of symbolic behaviour to investigate whether, in southern Africa, the appearance of recognisably modern behaviour is coeval with, or significantly postdates, the appearance of anatomically modern people.

Later Stone Age Archaeology of the Phuthiatsana Basin, Lesotho

Peter Mitchell
Prior to 1988 archaeological fieldwork in Lesotho had been restricted to the highland zone. Having established a cultural-stratigraphic sequence for this lowland area, excavation of rock-shelters and complementary field-survey demonstrated significant changes in hunter-gatherer land-use, subsistence and regional demography over the last 12 000 years. Comparison with adjacent areas suggests that particular lithic raw materials were used during the Holocene to signal social identities and that the local establishment of Iron Age farming groups may have provoked a major shift in hunter-gatherer settlement patterns.

Hunting the Gatherers; ethnographic collectors, agents and agency in Melanesia

Michael O'Hanlon
In the last twenty years the process of making ethnographic collections has been viewed largely in terms of local dispossession and western appropriation. However, some recent studies have suggested that this is a partial perspective only, and that collecting is sometimes a more complex process, one which embodies local agency in ways that have not been appreciated. Starting with this insight, the present research, undertaken in co-operation with Prof. Robert Welsch, adjunct curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, will result in an edited volume.

As part of this research, a colloquium was held at the Pitt Rivers Research Centre in May 1999. The results of the colloquium (which was held with the support of the Oxford's Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, the Centre for Cross-cultural Research in Canberra, and the British Academy) were published by Berghahn towards the end of 2000.

Nineteenth century collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch
When the University of Oxford received the donation of the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884 it already had some ethnographic objects in its collections at the Ashmolean Museum. Some of these had come from the founding collection of that museum, the Tradescant collection; others had been donated between sixteenth and the nineteenth century by University staff, explorers, Royal Navy personnel and dealers etc. In 1886 the University decided that its ethnographic collections should be consolidated at the Pitt Rivers Museum and most of the ethnographic objects which had been displayed at the Ashmolean Museum were transferred. Other items were also transferred, at around the same time, from the University Museum (of Natural History). The Pitt Rivers Museum also received many other donations between the time of its first opening in 1884 and the beginning of the twentieth century. All of these objects are of great interest to today's scholars, researchers and museum visitors. The Museum was fortunate enough to obtain funding from The Pilgrim Trust to allow some of these collections to be researched and made more accessible by computerising and enhancing their documentation. This research project began in January 1999 and ended in September 1999. Some of the fruits of this research were published in Ashmolean Museum Oxford Manuscript Catalogues of the Early Museum Collections 1683 - 1886 (Part I) by Arthur Macgregor, Oxford 2000 British Archaeological Reports, International Series 907. Entries relating to those objects can be found on the Museum's databases.

Congo Journey: Photographs and Documents from Robert Hottot’s Expedition to Central Africa, 1908-9

This website makes available photographs and documents from the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Hottot Collection, providing an online catalogue to the objects displayed in an exhibition of the same name held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2004.


Spencer and Gillen's Fieldwork in Australia, 1894 - 1929

Alison Petch
Spencer and Gillen, two famous early Australian anthropologists, carried out several fieldtrips together between 1894 and 1904, including their most famous period of fieldwork activity - their journey between Oodnadatta and Borroloola in 1901-1902. After Gillen's death in 1912 Spencer undertook several independent field trips including a long stay in Darwin, Northern Territory in 1912.

The Pitt Rivers Museum holds some of Spencer's fieldwork notebooks from fieldtrips taken between 1894 and 1929. Other field notebooks and journals by both men are held in institutions in Australia including, the South Australian Museum and State Library of South Australia in Adelaide, the Museum Victoria in Melbourne and the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. It is hoped at some future point that funding can be obtained to work on this material to make it more accessible for other scholars and members of the public. Alison Petch, Pitt Rivers Museum Registrar has completed some research on the journals held in this museum.

The Vanuatu Project at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Tina Stoecklin
The Clausen Collection is an important addition to the already extensive sound recording archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The collection centres around the field recordings of Raymond Clausen, an ethnomusicologist and musician who studied anthropology at Oxford under John Layard

The core of the collection consists of field recordings, photographs, cine films, and supplementary documentation of his ethnomusicological field researches in Vanuatu. Vanuatu is a roughly Y-shaped Melanesian archipelago, located in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles west of Fiji.