Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum

Oxford is full of remarkable places, but they can be hard to find -- often hidden behind stone walls or down garden paths, and rarely put on full display for the brief visitor. It's one of the things I like about Oxford -- even though it's often crawling with tourists, there are still so many secret locations that can only be found with hard work.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is famous, but it's just a bit hard to find, and once inside, there is such a multitude of things to see that one could visit a hundred times and still be discovering unseen, hidden objects. To get there, one must wander up Parks Road to the Victorian cathedral of science, the University Museum of Natural History...

go through the imposing wooden doors, and...
Actually, one second, let's check something out on the outside of the Museum.
See how one of the windows has a lot of carvings around it and the other one doesn't? When the Museum was being built, there was a lengthy dispute about payment with the stone masons, who were two brothers, and eventually they picked up their things and left. The people financing the Museum (Oxford dons, natch) decided not to pay for any more carvings and as a result, there are several places around the Museum -- both inside and out -- that are bare like this. Another good example, should you find yourself there, is in the local stone columns near the gift shop -- check out the bases.

Incidentally those windows face onto a gorgeous room at the front of the Museum, which is the entomology lab, a stunning room with dark wood panelling and a gorgeous curving staircase leading up to a library on a balcony. This series of rooms is not open the public and I only saw it because I was volunteering after hours at an event.

Now we've gone through the doors. We're inside of the Natural History Museum and there are lots of amazing things all around. But don't be distracted by the beautiful dinosaurs! Walk straight through the Museum.



We'll walk between two statues -- one of this famous gentleman, Sir Isaac Newton:



And one of another famous but slightly more controversial gentleman, Charles Darwin:
It never quite seems fair to me that Newton gets depicted as young and quite handsome, while Darwin is in his classic old man with beard pose. Still, I like that these two are the gatekeepers.

Once we pass between them, we'll look off to our left and see a door with a sign over it that says Pitt-Rivers Collection.


Once through the door, we'll find yourself looking into a dimly lit, cavernous space. This is the darkest museum you'll ever enter...


The thing about the Pitt-Rivers -- the thing that makes it so unique -- is that the objects are arranged by type, rather than by culture or chronology. Therefore the patterns they demonstrate are ones of form and function, rather than telling any coherent story about a single group of people. It's an interesting approach to material culture, to say the least, and one based on the principles of the Museum's founder, General Pitt-Rivers, who wanted to show the progression from barbarianism to civilization that he (as a Victorian gentleman -- he donated the money and his collection of 20,000 objects in 1884) believed to exemplify the evolution of societies.

Today the collection has something like 500,000 objects, and no longer adheres to Victorian ideas about anthropology as a study of the "progression of man" -- but it does still arrange its objects in this way. As a museum-goer, both viewing and interacting with the objects (I volunteer here for education and public outreach projects as well), I find that the arrangement gives me insight into the common patterns between societies. I am especially interested in the ones that cross modern political boundaries to embrace a way of life in a certain geographical zone (i.e., similarities between people who live in deserts and people who live in polar regions).

Ok enough anthropological blather, let's check out some of the objects!

Just to the left of the stairs down into the museum, there's a vitrine full of depictions of animal forms. I find these birds from New Zealand to be particularly beautiful:

Apologies for slightly blurry pictures, by the way. These were taken with as much light as possible and they still turned out a bit blurry! This museum is seriously dark. Here are some carvings of animals in elephant horn, from central Africa:

And a 19th century Norwegian beer drinking bowl with horse heads on either side.

Finally, my favourite objects, some kachina dolls from the Southwestern US -- but unlike the kachinas that my grandmother collected and my mother now collects, they have actual fur on them! I have seen many kachina dolls but had never seen ones with fur before seeing these.

From there, let's wander to the back corner of the museum. Here's a section full of different methods of building houses. I particularly enjoy the furry tipis:

They just look deliciously warm. And here's a Bosnian peasant house, complete with turf storage house beneath:

Finally, some models of igloos:


Standing in this corner, we're close to the totem pole that dominates the back wall of the Museum. Although many of the objects in the Museum were gifts from British explorers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers abroad, this one was a gift from its artists, from the Pacific Northwest of course.


And looking away from the totem pole, we can see the layout of the Museum's ground floor, and just how claustrophobic and warren-like it really is. This Museum is absolutely packed with vitrines, which are in turn packed with objects.

The low vitrine full of ivory-carved objects is a favourite of mine. From China:


And a selection from many different places:



There's a perfectly carved Inuit man riding a sled with ten dogs that I attempted to photograph several times, but unfortunately with no luck -- as well as an intricate Chinese carving of a series of delicate ivory balls within one another. Sometimes I like to just admire the objects themselves as art and not think too hard about them :).

Next is a section devoted to different types of ships. The one that looks like it has legomen in it is a model of a Japanese war ship.

The boat in the top here is also Japanese.

And then a display of trumpets from around the world, including some made out of shells and some made out of horns:

Oh, I seem to have lied, because we've found our way back to see the dog sledder! Here he is, in his perfectly carved glory:


I'm not too sure what the thing on the left is. A fish?

And here's a spectacular necklace that, not to be culturally insensitive, really reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Do not hug the guy wearing this.

General Pitt Rivers was an archaeologist as well as an anthropologist (as all good archaeologists are), and is thought of as the first person to bring the scientific method in archaeology to Britain. One of his rules was to document every artefact found, not just the shiny ones -- changing archaeology into the study of humankind, rather than just an exercise in treasure hunting. The Museum exemplifies that when it displays less fantastic objects like these everyday methods of making fire -- so crucial to life, but not terribly interesting to look at:

In the middle of this floor is are a few gruesome vitrines. There's the infamous shrunken heads, probably the most viewed items in here, which are actually really disgusting, and which appear in the worst scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the movie). Then there's a vitrine dealing with the treatement of the dead. It includes in one corner this bizarrely painted monkey skull set into a stone. I couldn't find any explanation about where it had come from or who had made it. Any thoughts?


There's also this skull, painted red and sewn with a design. I like how it's kept under a bell jar -- almost as if it's about to be served up on a platter.

One of my favourite sections is that depicting different methods of recording information. Here's what we'll see when we peek into the part about early forms:


Heiroglyphs and cuneiform tables and figures carved into bone and stone! That cuneiform tablet in the centre is a record of someone's bill. There's a lot to be said for the idea that the Mesopotamians essentially invented writing to keep track of accounts in their city-states.

This vitrine displays the many tools that people use to write:

And here's our last stop on the bottom floor, Depictions of Humans. I love this little guy, he's from India, and sometimes I like to hold out my arms like him and do a little dance. He's right next to a mask from central Africa in the 1800s that has four carved wooden men atop it, two of whom are white and in pith helmets -- I tried to take a picture to show you that, but sadly it came out very blurry.

Turning to the left away from this display, we'll head upstairs, to the second level. Here's the view from the top:

Immediately greeting us in this section is a brand new display, of objects made from recycled material. Some of these are pretty cool -- I especially like the bee-striped teapot, which is made from recycled toilet seats in South Africa.


Immediately behind this is a display about Aboriginal art. I am a total sucker for awesome depictions of animals in art, as you almost certainly know if you read this blog (because that probably means you know me in person and know how much I love animals), and the Aborigines do a great job with keeping it creative. The tiny figures that are on? in? some preposition the tail of this crocodile are simultaneously creepy -- don't they look parasitic? aren't their grins a bit too manic? -- and cute. And Crocodile's big eye and big-toothed grin are positively adorable.

From the Pacific Northwest, some very neat bowls.


And a glimpse down an aisle, where the vitrines are particularly beautiful.


Now let's go up to the third floor. Much of this floor is taken up by firearms -- including General Pitt Rivers' personal collection, which is large and impressive -- and there are some real gems, like a blunderbuss and some very early muskets. Old guns are always incredibly ornate and look like they couldn't harm a thing. Pro tip: if we're ever time travelling before, oh, 1830ish, and we get into a situation where we have to fight a duel, choose the pistols rather than the sword.

There's also a section devoted entirely to keys, which are quite cool to look at, and another devoted to currency. Sadly these sections are quite dark or I would show you them with pictures! One thing that becomes obvious on a lengthy visit to this museum is that any group of objects, no matter how functional, starts to look like art or ornament after you've seen enough of them.

Finally we'll check out this vitrine full of methods for dealing with snow. I like this one, because I own some snowshoes myself.

I especially like these -- from Scandinavia, they're snowshoes for horses! They actually seem like they'd be completely useless because they're so small...

And a collection of goggles for dealing with snow. I've got some of these too!



Well, that's been a quick tour of the Pitt Rivers. Leaning against the back wall of the third floor, we can see this collection of small boats silhouetted beneath the soaring ceiling:


Our trip today has only touched on a few of the amazing things to be found here -- but don't worry, because no matter how many times I visit, I'm confident that I'll only scratch the surface of all that's here.

If you'd like to see a bit more of the Museum from the comfort of your computer, check out the Virtual Collections on their webpage.

1 comment:

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