Pitt Rivers Museum

Anthropology and World Archaeology

Yesterday I was part of a school trip to Oxford where we visited the University of Oxford  Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology. Our GCSE Art students are studying Africa and this was an opportunity for them to see artefacts, tools, weapons,and much more and record them in their sketch books.

Pitt Rivers Museum was our primary destination, but we had to walk through the Museum of Natural History to find it and what a spectacular walk it was (see Skylights). Under a huge vaulted roof of wood, iron, stone and glass are two huge dinosaur skeletons amongst many other beautifully arranged exhibits. Towards the back of the hall a heavy studded door looking like it came from Ancient China opened onto the dark and mysterious world of Pitt Rivers; three floors absolutely packed with all kinds of weird and wonderful objects from around the world and the distant past.

A nineteenth century archaeologist and anthropologist, Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (and who would expect someone with a name like that to be anything less than extraordinary?) gave his personal collection of nearly 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford in 1884, and the museum was thus founded. The conditions he put on his gift were that a museum would be built to house the collection, that they should be displayed according to type or function, and that someone should be appointed to teach these subjects. Today, the tremendously helpful and knowledgeable staff are all actively involved in University teaching.

Over the years, the collection has grown to more than 500,000  objects and is still growing through donations and purchases, and many items are used for University research, other research projects or loaned out to other museums.

After a few moments so that my eyes could adjust to the relative gloom (it is dark to help conserve the objects) I started to make my way around the ground floor, or Court, where the exhibits include basketry, magic and ritual, masks, textiles and costume, pottery, dwellings, transport and music. Here are totem poles, shrunken heads, Maori canoes, Inuit furs, hookah pipes, ivory carvings and so much more, all displayed in glass cases and often with  detailed information of origin, age and use. This historical style of display creates a wonderful and memorable period atmosphere.

Up one floor is the Lower Gallery where the displays include baby carriers, Benin Court art, jewellery and body art, currency, beadwork, puppets, tools and ceremonial items. Here are beautifully carved wooden headrests, Algerian jewellery of silver, red coral and other stones, thousands of ivory religious figures, beaded collars for puberty ceremonies, locks and keys, surgical implements and chatelaines.

Under every glass cabinet are drawers, most of which can be opened, and all of which are crammed with many, many more items than are on display, all carefully catalogued and wrapped in plastic.

On the top floor, or Upper Gallery, displays include armour, weapons, warfare and seperate displays for the Naga Peoples of NE India and the Nuer and Dinka Peoples of Sudan. Here are full suits of Samurai body armour, breastplates made of coir, or bony backplates from a Nile crocodile, blowpipes, spears, boomerangs, fishing rods and nets, shields and knuckledusters.

As we had travelled so far, we had only three hours to wander around the museum. It was very busy, with several school parties and small groups sitting on stools the museum provides sketching the exhibits. There is no restriction on photography, but the need for flash made it quite tricky because of the reflective glass cabinets. There is no entrance fee, although donations boxes are dotted around should you wish to contribute. A small gift shop offers books, postcards, keyrings, craft items and jewellery all at surprisingly reasonable prices.

Pitt Rivers Museum is definitely a place to revisit time and again, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with any time to spare in Oxford.


click on pics to enlarge….


2 thoughts on “Pitt Rivers Museum

  1. birdinaword September 27, 2012 / 12:12 am

    I’d love to go there soon. If you liked the Pitt Rivers, you must visit the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent where I work if you get a chance one day.

    • Bridget September 27, 2012 / 5:24 pm

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll look it up and hopefully go there some day!

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