Collecting English Tradition

Extract from Alice's unpublished essay, 'Survival, Revival or Salvage? English Tradition and The Pitt Rivers Museum':

A glance at the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) reveals how active Oxfordshire’s collectors were at the turn of the twentieth century. The Museum exhibits in its main court a handful of such local gleanings, including a pair of mole's feet (1911.75.16, a Norfolk cure for toothache) and the tip of a human tongue (1917.53.614) cut off a deceased relative in the 1890s and carried as a charm.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century folklore was beginning to emerge as a discipline distinct from academic anthropology, and folklorists took as their task the collection of materials as well as tales, songs, customs and traditions from local communities, knocking on cottage doors and observing people in the streets.

In this paper I hope to investigate in depth motivation for collecting at home at the turn of the twentieth century. In order to do so I will be looking at the methods of various collectors, using as case studies two objects now found in the PRM collection: a Whithorn – a 'primitive oboe' (Balfour 1896:221) made of twisted willow bark; and a whittle-and-dub – a small whistle and drum, played simultaneously by one man to accompany Morris dancing.

Both objects had fallen out of use by the mid-nineteenth century, but fifty years later became central to the efforts of the collector Percy Manning, his employee Thomas Carter, and local museum professional Henry Balfour, all of whom went to great lengths to find examples for their collections. I will investigate what inspired their projects, and how this affected their methods, drawing some comparisons with colonial collecting.

I have identified three prominent motivations in this period: the study of survivals in culture, the revival of folk customs, and the desire to salvage before objects and customs disappeared completely. None acted exclusively upon collectors, and in fact each ideology was driven by a further range of factors.


To read this work in its entirety (10,500 words) please get in touch.

You can read more about Percy Manning's music collections and the work of Henry Balfour and Thomas Carter under Percy Manning.

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