The Pitt Rivers Museum – Sunday afternoon

Should you ever be in Oxford with an hour or two to kill then there is no better way of doing so than going for a wander round The Pitt Rivers Museum. It is down the road from South Parks and almost opposite Keble College and is tucked behind The Natural History Museum.

In fact you have to walk through The Natural history Museum to get to it. This can be a bit of a distraction as The Natural History Museum is itself worth spending time in and if you only have an hour, a large part of this could be taken up dawdling past the cases of stuffed animals and birds, butterflies stuck with a pin and dinosaur bones.

On the moment The Natural history Museum is being renovated so most of the cabinets are either empty or boxed up. There was still a good collection of ape skulls to admire as something of a precursor to the main event.  

The Pitt Rivers Museum itself is like a giant Victorian box of curiosities from all over the world. It has been spruced up and modernised around the edges but the main hall and the floor is just as it was twenty five years ago when I first went and probably not too far off what it was like 100 years ago.

The main floor is open to the iron struts of the roof two stories up and is crammed full of dark wood glass cabinets which in turn are filled to overflowing with the University’s archeological and anthropological collections. Around the side of the room are two open galleries also filled with cabinets. The room is dark and gloomy and the cabinets are badly lit so you have to peer in close to see what is in them.

Each cabinet is devoted to a particular subject be it musical instruments, model boats, toys made from tin cans, swords, guns, pikes and clubs. Items from different continents and countries jostle up next to each and sometimes over and around each other. Some items maybe four hundred years old others almost contemporary. Look closer again and most things are labelled – sometimes by hand in black ink on the item itself. There are dolls and shields, mummified cats and mummies. The room is dominated by a vast totem pole that stands at the far end reaching up almost as high as the ceiling. It is from North America and had to be cut into two to get it to a size it could be brought over the ocean.

Always the highlight is the cabinet of shrunken heads. These are about the size of a large fist, black with dye and made by peeling away the skin from the skull, treating it so it shrinks and stuffing it with sand and then moulding it back into the shape of a head, the lips and other orifices carefully sewn up. The same cabinet has a number of skulls and other trophies of war, some of them decorated with shells and pieces of bone. The labelling reminds us that it was not so long ago that went into cutting off the heads of our enemies and putting them on spikes to ward off others. There is a helpful copy engraving of the Bonfire Nights plotters – heads on spikes.

The whole place is a complete antidote to the idea of a modern museum with its bright light and interactivity and eagerness to please but with nothing to look at. I suspect that there is a type of museum curator who would look on in horror.

The place is dusty with unkempt corners but it is an immersive experience and an hour or two killed does not really do it justice.

Whilst we were there Galen did some drawing including a picture of James Bond’s gum that was in the cabinet of pistols.

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I went hoping that there would be a good book to buy about the place and its exhibits. There doesn’t appear to be. There should be – it would make a good one.

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