I’ve been a fan of the Pitt Rivers Museum for years, fascinated by its labyrinthine displays of enticing objects. I’ve been to a lot of the evening events that the museum stages; from the film screening by Louis Sarno, the ethnographer who went bush and has lived in the DRC jungle for more than a generation; to curated sound events displaying the life of the Bayaka tribe. However, on each visit I only learn about one tiny part of the collections, learning in detail but unable to intellectually access other exhibits. So I embarked on an After Hours tour, given to small groups after the museum has officially closed for the day, keen to be introduced to the wider museum.
The Pitt Rivers suffers from its own popularity: the crowds, especially during summer, often mean that you can’t spend as much time as necessary examining each object. The After Hours tour has been created in response to this need, offering exclusive access to an empty museum accompanied by an expert guide. The tour groups are incredibly small (several guides operate at the same time), meaning that individual attention is given, and every question is well considered and answered extensively. The dynamic of such a small group could be difficult to manage given the inevitable range of knowledge and interests, but this barrier is handled well with a malleable script and able guides. My group included a young teenager who was kept entertained without compromising the quality of the talk for the adults present, a very difficult skill.
The tour is structured around six objects, using them as points from which to embark on wider discussions about the museum and its history. Without revealing too many secrets, the Inuit parkas are used to explain the delicate and intensive conservation work carried out on damaged objects; the coconut fibre armour prompts discussion on comparative ethnography in its juxtaposition against General Pitt Rivers’ own gun collection. This is great for two reasons: the museum is so densely packed with objects that there is little room for written information, usually just a few descriptive words on a tag that give no insight into why the object exists or their cultural roles, or indeed their source culture at all. A tour guide offers up a huge range of extra information that is otherwise more difficult to access. Secondly, the tour is structured more as an introduction to how to use the museum, providing its history and some reasoning behind various display choices. The densely packed cases were the result of both Pitt Rivers’ and Henry Balfour’s - the museum’s first director – thinking, demonstrating a very progressive view at the birth of anthropology. After the tour visitors are given free roam of the museum, and armed with their new knowledge of its aims, can investigate and examine objects at their own pace, understanding their significance within their own cultural context, and the context of the museum.
In the early days of the museum, there were two main levels of staff, the curators and the demonstrators. A large part of the demonstrators’ job was to work out what objects were, and how they were used; my guide told us a lovely story about Oxford fellows trialling boomerangs in the park. In many ways the museum has not changed, only now the public have become the demonstrators, attempting to understand what objects mean. This tour creates a sense of intrigue that inspires research, and emphasises exclusivity of experience. While the museum’s larger events are lots of fun and supremely valuable, the attention paid to each individual person induces enormous excitement about the exhibits and reaffirmed my love of ethnography.