For tourists and locals alike, the Pitt Rivers is a treasure chest filled to the brim with trinkets and curios to keep you occupied for hours. I often find myself only intending to pop in for a quick peek but emerging quite a while later, feeling a bit dazed and more informed about societies in the past and present.
Located within Oxford University's Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers came into existence in 1884 after Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers donated his collection of over 20,000 object to the University of Oxford. His assortment of objects were given on the condition that they would be used to educate others about different cultures and that the objects would be displayed typologically - that is to say by type - rather than chronologically. This allows the visitor to see objects from all around the world and from differing time periods placed together, which is an unusual style in which to display artefacts but does allow for easier comparison and contrasts. The collection has continued to grow and now the Pitt Rivers has nearly half a million objects in its catalogue (though many have been lent out to other museums) forming the basis of research projects or else being used for display.
Since the its renovation in 2009, the Pitt Rivers has lost the musty smell that used to overpower visitors upon entry, making looking around a much more pleasant experience. The renovations have also made it much easier to actually see the artefacts and to navigate the collection. The museum describes its layout as 'a maze of cases letting your curiosity lead you' which is certainly an apt description. The collection is spread over three floors, with the majority of cases slotted together on the ground floor. However, make sure you don't neglect the upper floors as there are some truly intriguing displays; Body art, Jewellery and Accessories is a particularly absorbing exhibition, as is the vast collection of shields. I would be so bold as to say that there is something which will appeal to every visitor, whatever your interests. Before you begin exploring, I would urge you to spend £2 on an audio guide. It's very easy to use and is suitable for adults and children. The cases do contain ample information about the artefacts but the audio guide really brings to life the objects you would have otherwise merely glanced at.
These are a few of my personal highlights from the permanent exhibitions the Pitt Rivers offers:
In the left hand corner of the ground floor, there is a display case covered by a curtain. Draw it back and turn the light on and you'll see several beautiful Hawaiian feather cloaks. The cloak on the very left of the cabinet was painstakingly crafted by using the yellow and black feathers from ʻōʻū honey creepers (now feared to be extinct) and red feathers from 'I'iwi honey creepers (extinct on some Hawaiian islands). It was presented to Sir George Simpson, the governor of the Hudson Bay Company in 1842 by Princess Kekauluohi Ka'ahumanu III as a gift for his wife. Traditionally, these cloaks are only worn by members of the royal family of Hawaii and are said to contain spiritual powers. To preserve the colour of the cloak, it is important to keep them covered from natural light and to limit their exposure to daylight. The Pitt Rivers have created a time-lapse video of visitors making a paper version of the cloak in the same amount of time to would take to be made from feathers to show the dedication of the people who created it.
From a young age, I was fascinated (and creeped out) by the display of Irterau the mummy. She died at the age of 25 years in ancient Thebes over 250,000 years ago. Her remains were gifted to the Pitt Rivers by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, when he 'discovered' her coffin during his tour of Egypt in 1864. They were initially presented to the Ashmolean, who already had an extensive collection of mummies, and so the Pitt Rivers gained Irterau. It's possible to see her remains, coffin, sarcophagus and canopic jars in the display case and even an x-ray of her remains. Mummies are intrinsically fascinating to all and the comparison with the mummies from Peru helps visitors to see beyond associating mummies with ancient Egyptian society.
The most gruesome, and thus arguably the most popular, section of the Pitt Rivers is the display case entitled Treatment of dead enemies. Within the case, you'll find a collection of Tsantas or shrunken heads. Unfortunately, they do not instruct you about how best to drive a magical bus but the history behind the heads is fascinating. The heads shown in the collection were acquired between 1871 and 1936 from tribes in the regions situated between Peru and Ecuador. Tsantas are traditionally made as part of a ritual to convert one of the three souls of the dead person to join the victorious tribe. They are made by removing the skull, brains and other matter and then the skin is boiled with pebbles inserted to shape the skin. The lips and eyes were sown up with cotton and the faces were dyed brown and black using vegetable dyes. These heads would be worn at a ritualistic feast to represent the conversion of the enemy to that of an ally. Some of the heads on display are substitutes, made from monkey and sloth heads. The Western desire to collect these curiosities for museums and private collections peaked during the Victorian period and many 'fake' heads were created from people who died of natural causes to meet this demand. It wasn't until the 1960s that Tsantas stopped being made. The heads are repulsive and ugly to look at, yet they reveal important cultural traditions within Southern American tribes and how they were able to take advantage of Western curiosity.
The Pitt Rivers does not have a café of its own but you can easily visit the café on the first floor in the Natural History museum, which has plenty of space, lovely views of the museum from above, and a good selection of snacks and drinks. I was pleased with my espresso, which was hot and full of flavour, but was unimpressed by the pecan pie. The pastry was average, the filling was covered in a thick layer of fruity-flavoured gelatine to ensure the pecans held onto the base, which only tasted of sugar rather than pecans and so it literally left a bad taste in my mouth, but this did not ruin my experience.
The Pitt Rivers has recently been awarded the DCMS/Wolfson Foundation's Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund meaning additional cases will be placed in the museum in Autumn 2015. Preparation for these exhibits was evident when visiting and I am looking forward to seeing the new Captain Cook collection display!
I urge you to take visitors to Oxford to the Pitt Rivers to experience this place of wonder and oddities and to go again yourself to connect with objects that horrify, surprise and elate us and remind us that whatever our political or social allegiances, we are all people with the same fears and desires.