In Mexico, the Dia de Muertos is a public holiday, but if you are in Oxford and want to honour the departed souls of your loved ones, you’ll have to do it after work. And where better than the Pitt Rivers museum, that treasure of anthropology, archaeology and ethnography that has taken to offering events AfterHours.
Many people think of the Pitt Rivers as ‘that place with the shrunken heads’ but, thanks recently to more public engagement and savvier marketing, we can see that it offers much more. Its permanent collections showcase how communities across the world commemorate and mourn their dead. Tonight, the museum offered a number of additional activities, such as sugar skull face painting and marigold wreath making, exposing various Day of the Dead traditions in a hands-on way - probably a particular delight for children. Oxford-based Cuban band Ran Kan Kan entertained us, and food and drinks were also available.
We were treated to three wonderful, fascinating talks: one about death, doctors and urban development in Victorian London, the second a brief history of the medical use of mummies (go figure), and the third an exploration of death in poetry. No seating was available, and all the talks were in the main museum, which meant that only very small groups gathered closely around the speaker could get the most out of them. The Pitt Rivers is not an easy space to work with, and I’m sure there were many challenges in trying to coordinate all the activities to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Clearly something had captured the public’s imagination, as there was a lot of demand, and downloadable or printable tickets might have helped speed up the entry process. Overall, though, they made a valiant effort in this respect.
I came home feeling as though I’d been to a great party, which is not a bad thing. I might have learned more about the Day of the Dead festival itself if I had spent more time in the slightly tucked-away crafts rooms. However, if, as the organiser tells me, the museum’s aim is to attract a ‘missing’ 16-30 age group, I do hope that the process of broadening its appeal will not dilute its academic verve, which, to me, is its USP. For me, the academic-flavoured talks were the best part of the evening, and a talk relating to the Day of the Dead festival itself would have been welcome.
Overall it was a fun, interesting evening, and a refreshing break from the tiresome, consumerist Hallowe’en mania that sweeps the country at this time of year. These AfterHours events are an evolving feature of the Pitt Rivers’ new image, and I look forward to going back to sample more.