Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Pitt Rivers was educator, not treasure hunter, says relative

Augustus Pitt Rivers was an educator, not a smash-and-grab “treasure hunter”, and his collections in British museums should be viewed accordingly, a family member has said.

Over 26,000 objects acquired by the 19th-century archaeologist and soldier formed the founding collection of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, while finds from excavations on his Rushmore estate on the Wiltshire-Dorset border later went to the Salisbury Museum.

His objects in Oxford, in particular, have been the subject of recent controversy, when shrunken heads were removed from public display in 2020 over concerns around cultural insensitivity. The museum is seeking to decolonise its collections, which, it says are “closely tied to British Imperial expansion”.


Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking this week at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Alice Plunkett, the racing presenter who is married to one of Lieutenant General Pitt Rivers’ descendants and is a member of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s development advisory board, defended his motives and legacy. She said: “I think really understanding the provenance of the collection and what it was about — that it wasn’t about trophy hunting, treasure grabbing, it was an education piece — perhaps helps now with those conversations that everyone is having in this country about that period and colonialism.”

The former eventer and National Hunt jockey added: “Being really confident and clear that the general’s whole thing was not about treasure — it was about education, access, understanding and the broader picture — should give us confidence I think, in terms of having those conversations in the right way.”

Pitt Rivers’ interest in collecting and artefacts started with his research for the army into the history of the rifle. This broadened into an interest in the history of weapons generally, and then objects of all kinds — which he believed developed in an evolutionary process along Darwinian lines. As a member of an influential family and inheritor of a large fortune, Pitt Rivers was able to pursue his interests on a grand scale.

Nevertheless, Plunkett and Adrian Green, director of the Salisbury Museum, emphasised Pitt Rivers’ various schemes to make his collections and research accessible, including through the public museum, art gallery and gardens he founded on his estate.

Plunkett acknowledged that her views differed from those of some fellow board members in Oxford. She said: “I thought long and hard before I joined the board of the Pitt Rivers Museum. But this research that I wanted to share with you, about this man and why he pulled the collection together, influenced my decision to being part of the Pitt Rivers Museum, because I felt very clear and confident that it was pulled together for the right reasons. Maybe at that time there were challenges that we’re not comfortable with now, but his founding principles of that collection were about education, access, and improvement of people. They weren’t about smash and grab and treasure hunting.

Pitt Rivers’ collection included items of colonial plunder, such as bronzes looted from Benin City (above), but speakers at a recent event said he obtained such objects at second or third hand. Photo: Reginald Granville, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“So for that reason, I feel comfortable in supporting the Pitt Rivers Museum and trying to help it. Not everyone on the board is in the same place as me and it is a continual conversation. And it is something that, you know, may mean that I can’t stay there because there is such a push in other directions. But, for me, because of the work and the knowledge and understanding that I have of this guy [Pitt Rivers], that has helped me reconcile and become more comfortable with that collection.”

Responding to a question, she suggested that, as custodians of objects acquired by the general, the UK museums may have prevented the destruction of artefacts that might otherwise have been destroyed.

She said: “Some of the work we’re doing at the Pitt Rivers Museum now is with communities around the world. So we’ve just had a delegation from Nigeria to look at a specific box that was given to boys when they passed through to manhood. And there is not one left in Nigeria because of civil war and because of the nature of things. So this amazing team came and looked at that, brought craftsmen, and now there’s a whole project to reinstitute this tradition, which had been lost because the objects had been lost.

“I think that’s where the Pitt Rivers Museum needs to be clear about its foundations, you know — the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum is education. And there are going to be areas, particularly in the current environment, and very much the woke environment, where there are going to be some discussions that have to be had.”

Green, meanwhile, said that Pitt Rivers acquired most items obtained from overseas at second or third hand rather than as a coloniser. Nevertheless, he said it was important that museums did not “shy away” from colonial ties.

He added: “To give you an example, we’ve got a lot of saddles that he [Pitt Rivers] collected. One of them belonged to I think it was Warren Hastings, who was in charge of the East India Company. So that was almost certainly a piece of colonial loot from a battle in India in the 18th century that now sits in our collection — but that is sitting there unacknowledged at the moment. So what we want to do is actually draw people’s attention, to talk about its provenance and its history so that people can know and understand it.

Asked whether his museum would consider returning the saddle if a descendant of the original owner came forward, he said: “We do know who it may have belonged to originally. So yes, if their descendant came forward, that is definitely a conversation worth having. One of the challenges, though, is that the Pitt Rivers collection we have was given to the museum in lieu of death duty, as an entirety. So if we were to actually repatriate anything, a bit like the British Museum we would get ourselves tied up into in knots talking to the Arts Council and to the government about whether we could actually repatriate it or not.”

The top photograph shows the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the founding collection of which was the gift of Augustus Pitt Rivers. Photo: Alamy

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