Investigating the colonial legacy in the anthropological films of Pitt Rivers Museum (University of Oxford)

Rinella Cere

Appadurai in his preface to the book Across Anthropology states that “the ethnological museum as an institution emerges from ideas of collection, display, learning, and taste with deep roots in Europe’s troubled encounters with those societies that were under Imperial rule or came under some sort of Western sovereignty” (2020, p. 45).

Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (PRM) is one such museum, in its outward appearance still very much a Victorian Museum, with glass cases packed full of objects from every corner of the world, much of it in connection with anthropological fieldwork undertaken in territories under the rule of British colonialism. Today, Pitt Rivers Museum is also an institution conscious of ‘that troubled encounter’ which is visible in its displayed objects and much of the material in the archive, from documents to photograph to films, the latter the concern of the PICCH project.

The museum has endeavoured in recent years to begin the process of decolonisation, from more high-profile removals from the glass case of ‘popular’ ancestral remains to relabelling material in the light of contemporary sensitivities, to inviting source communities ‘to counter-read’ the objects in the museum. The unravelling of the colonial past from anthropology and ethnography is tightly bound up to what we increasingly call today processes of decolonisation. These take many forms, from restitution of objects to interpellating the source communities involved.

The Film archive

Visual accounts can at times appear more 'authentic' especially when, as in the case of all the early anthropological (as well as archaeological and geological) films at PRM, they are in their entirety based on silent moving images; however, the absence of voice does not mean that they are devoid of the ideologically driven Western authority over other cultures.

The film collection that has been digitised to date by the museum contains 68 films accessible on its website via Vimeo. It is a miscellaneous collection which spans the whole of last century and into the present one, beginning with a film taken between 1902–1904 by Auguste François, French Consul in Yunnan Province, China and ending with a four-part documentary made in 2011, about British women anthropologists whose material (fieldwork writings, personal memoirs, photographs and films) are held at Pitt Rivers.  The digitised films cover anthropological fieldwork as well as archaeological excavations and geological expeditions. The lion’s share is about early British anthropological fieldwork, undertaken in areas controlled by the British Empire (mostly Africa and India).

Important critical research and writings have been done in recent decades about the complicated (and sometimes direct) relationship between anthropology, ethnography and colonialism and in order to make sense of some of the films (and photographs) deposited with the Pitt Rivers Museum it has become necessary to look at this relationship. Briefly then, anthropology's birth as an academic discipline has a chronological correlation with the apex of many 19th century colonial empires. This is not an abstract temporal coincidence and no amount of writing exculpating anthropologists will undo the direct links, the collusion and/or the 'professionally at peace' stance (Morton, 2020, p. 13). For direct links, we have many examples of colonial administrators turned anthropologists and an even greater set of examples where colonial authorities and administration 'facilitated' the fieldwork.

Pitt Rivers himself, the founder of the museum, was an officer in the British Army but he is also invariably referred to as an anthropologist, ethnologist and archaeologist. Anthropology study of customs, cultural and political, provided colonial powers with invaluable information about how groups of people, hard to reach geographically and otherwise, lived and organised themselves. This knowledge would then be put to use by the coloniser to extract allegiance and profit. The anthropologists may go away with their field notes, photographs, films and more dubiously objects - not always given as gifts - and put that knowledge to what they believed to be the basis of systematic studies of world cultures. These eventually made their way into museums and universities' curricula and established the discipline of anthropology; today that knowledge is under scrutiny more than ever.

Finally, the collusion did not stop with the colonial administration, alongside to administer a different kind of governance, 'the governance of the soul', missionaries often facilitated, and in some cases actually accompanied anthropologists in their initial contacts. There is some visual evidence of this in group photographs of missionaries, anthropologists and colonial administrators deposited in the archive at Pitt Rivers Museum.