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Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Coolest Museum in the World

While I was up in Oxford last week I got a chance to visit my all-time favorite museum, Oxford University’s famous Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Pitt Rivers contains a massive collection of anthropological objects in a large gallery and two upper floors in displays that remain virtually untouched since they were set up more than a century ago. The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects from Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, a pioneering anthropologist. Pitt Rivers was interested in the evolution of objects and organized his collection typologically, placing all items of the same use into a single case in order to show the evolution of form within and across cultures. The collection now boasts half a million objects from hundreds of cultures and still retains a typological organization.

The cases are cluttered with objects, and below them are drawers that can be opened to reveal more artifacts. Flashlights are available at the front desk so you can peer into the deeper recesses of the cases where even more artifacts are hidden. This style of organization gives a very different experience than the usual chronological order of most modern museums. You get bowled over by the sheer diversity of the world's cultures and their ways of solving common problems, everything from how to build a fire to how to play a tune. Overhead hang dugout canoes, catamarans, and coracles. There wasn't a case big enough to hold the "Watercraft" section so the curators decided to suspend them from the ceiling.

Enthusiasts of ancient Egypt should check out the case labeled Animal Forms in Art, in which a XII dynasty wooden ram’s head sits by a bronze cat representing Bast. Sharing the case are dozens of other animal representations from various cultures, some stylized, some realistic, some for worship, some for play. There’s even a 19th century Danish piggybank. One of the most arresting objects is a wooden owl carved by the Ainu (Japanese aborigines) around 1900, which shows similarities in execution to the Egyptian ram’s head.

In the Votive Offerings case are XVIII dynasty blue glazed eyes and ears that are remarkably similar in form and function to those from a Catholic church in Madras dating to 1917 a.d. An example of how objects can change in meaning over time in the same place is shown in drawer 29.3, labeled Amulets, Charms, and Divination. Inside are nine modern glazed ceramic imitations of Egyptian figurines. In the early 20th century, fellahin (peasant) men would go to a village and place them on the ground, and the women would jump over them in order to become fertile. That doesn't sound terribly Islamic to me!

Pitt Rivers was especially interested in weaponry, and one wall of the main floor shows the evolution of firearms, including a nasty 19th century trap gun to blast trespassers. On the second floor (first floor for you Europeans), another wall is taken up by spears and clubs from various African, Asian and Oceanic tribes. Don't miss the case on the ground floor showing the victims of one of these tribes. There are more than half a dozen shrunken heads, plus instructions on how to make them!

The Pitt Rivers is in the middle of a £6.7 million expansion that will provide new offices, laboratories, collection management facilities, a lecture theater, and study areas. Part of it is now open and it looks like it will be useful for visiting school groups. The main draw, though, will still be the famous Victorian displays, which the curators wisely left untouched. The expansion was supposed to be complete in the spring of 2007, and while the new facilities appear to be up and running, the top floor of the Victorian displays still hasn't reopened. Part of the problem is that the curators decided to use the expansion as an opportunity to recatalog the entire collection, but they discovered they had a lot of objects that weren't even cataloged at all. Now they have to go through every object, photographing, researching, and describing it. Hopefully they'll be able to reopen the top floor soon. In the meantime, it's still well worth a visit.

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