There are a few museums that are just truly magical. Stepping through the stone Pitt Rivers Museum archway from the brightly lit, open atrium of the Oxford Natural History Museum is like stepping into Narnia. The space is darker and noticeably cooler. A hush descends as you step in as all visitors gasp in amazement, their breath taken temporarily stolen when faced with so much history and culture brought together under one roof and displayed in a manner they may never have seen before.
The museum was founded in 1884 by Pitt Rivers, who donated his own extensive collection to Oxford University on the proviso that a permanent lecturer in anthropology would be appointed and a dedicated museum space given. A handy pie chart in one of the introductory cases indicates how much the collection has grown since then; from about 22,000 objects to in the regions of 500,000.
The museum has gone against the grain by choosing not to be completely modernised. So many museums have replaced original cases with modern, state of the art, high specification cases and child friendly interactives. This does not mean that the Pitt Rivers Museum has been kept identical to when it originally opened, displays are refreshed, and new research is added. Objects are often displayed against brightly coloured backgrounds in quirky, aesthetically pleasing formations. It has just retained its original integrity and identity. There are many occasions that I have looked at old black and white museum photos and thought, ‘why did they change it, it looked amazing back then’, but maybe I’m just old fashioned.
Most museums organise things chronologically and group items by place and object uses. The Pitt Rivers Museum is organised thematically. This means that items in one case will show similar examples from all around the world spanning all of time. This is unusual for a museum visitor to experience and it noticeably creates conversations between visitors. Children will ask the adults they are with ‘what’s that’ and ‘why’ creating a boiling pot for story-telling. I overheard one father convincing his children that the museum came to life at night (much to their glee) and a mother explaining what a mummy is to her daughter, who couldn’t quite believe that it was the remains of a real person and stood face pressed against the case, eyes wide in amazement.
I love being able to see original labels. In many museums, like in some clothes and jewellery shops, the labels are hidden. This is done in retail so that your instant judgement on an item is not governed by the price and having the label showing is somehow considered untidy, like we are pretending these items aren’t for sale but just looking really good hanging there. It’s done in museums because having modern labels with object identification numbers on can make a display look messy, especially if the label is larger than the object, or the display is meant to reflect a ‘real life’ scene. But the labels at the Pitt Rivers Museum are out for all to see, often attached to the objects, they more often than not appear to date to the object’s accession and are not just an identification number, but an explanation as to how they got to the museum, why they were collected or even what the object actually is. These historic labels written in spidery or looped handwriting have become part of the objects history and identity. As a lover of old fashioned museum labels, this was awesome and it gave an insight into why people acquired or valued items.
Ever seen a shrunken head? There are some, human and animal, displayed and explained here. What about buttock ornaments, lucky charms, amulets, weapons, ships, masks, lucky stones – the list of things to see is mind boggling. My favourite item was a ceremonial hat for female skulls, beautifully detailed, delicate and pretty.
This place is truly a treasure trove. I imagine that every time you visit you would see something new; the more you look the more you see. You can lose hours. Frankly, I can’t wait to go back – I might have to move to Oxford.