General Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) himself donated 20,000 objects collected from around the world to Oxford University, which forms the basis for this museum bearing his name, with further acquisitions taking the number up to 500,000. And from the look of the number of objects crammed into cases a lot of these are actually on display!
Re-opened in 2009, after some development work on the site, the decision was taken to return original cases and keep the interpretation Pitt-Rivers himself would have approved of, namely objects of the same type grouped together, regardless of their age or origin, ensuring the museum keeps its atmosphere of an old-school room of curiosities. But it’s not just the objects that harp back to 19th Century collecting methods, the hand-written labels from the early 20th Century are brilliant too – while slightly impractical for the partially sighted it brings in a personal touch lost in so many modern text-panel based interpretations.
You could spend ages in the museum just looking and still feel satisfied, but if you pick up an audio guide and delve into more detail on a few items its a little more rewarding. I learnt how Tally sticks caused the destruction of the Palace of Westminster, that three perfume bottles on display were donated by museum staff and listened to a lovely tune on a Lamellophone.
Temporary Exhibition: Visiting with the ancestors – until 1 September 2013
The current temporary exhibition is really worth visiting too. It looks at how ceremonial scalplock shirts of the Blackfoot tribes of North America were taken for a visit back to the community they originally came from.
One part of the exhibition explains how ceremonies that would have used these shirts no longer take place meaning the museum was able to make an important link between the modern day community and its traditions. During the visit one of the scalplock shirts was used in a ceremony transferring the right to wear these garments onto one of the community members, Pete Standing Alone, giving him the ability to wear new versions of these in future ceremonies.
The display shows the scalplock robes as well as information about the project and quotes from the Blackfoot people. The comment that most resonated with me was from a father who wanted to be able to give one of these shirts to his son when he graduated university to keep traditions and identity alive. He made the point that even though the community no longer revolved around war and hunting there are new achievements that could be commemorated by old traditions.
The exhibition addresses many pertinent museum questions – why do we collect and keep objects, how can they be used outside of display cases, do objects matter and are they worth hoarding?
Judging by the reactions on display from the Blackfoot community it would appear the role of collecting and conserving traditional objects does have real value above and beyond that of curiosity.
For more on the exhibition see – http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/blackfootexhibition.ht
Pitt Rivers Museum
South Parks Lane
FREE ENTRY (£2 for audioguide)