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Many museums, these days have bells and whistles. They have buttons to push, interactive displays with which to, well, interact and programmes galore to entice youngsters to learn. Other museums are resolutely Victorian, with dusty display cases and dusty displays. Tiny labels tell you the bare minimum about the exhibits (thus, handily, forcing you to buy the inevitable overpriced guide). However, a Victorian style museum needn't be musty or charmless. I'd seen this before with the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, and, more recently, at the Pitt Rivers (billed on their website as a museum of anthropology and world archaeology) in Oxford - an utterly charming, yet slightly odd and eccentric burst of Victoriana in the middle of one of England's most beautiful cities.
The splendidly named Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (I ask you, how many names does one man need?) founded this oddity in 1884, according to the small (and free) leaflet I have here in front of me. He bequeathed his collection of, apparently, nearly 20,000 objects (where the heck did he put them all?!) to Oxford University, on condition they build a museum, and that that museum should fulfil a certain condition, to wit, that the objects should be displayed by 'type' (I'll get to that in a minute) rather than by (for example) country or area of origin, or by era. Furthermore, he insisted that the 'type' (again, give me a minute) should be taught, and someone specifically appointed to do so. I'm not utterly surprised they acceded to his request, given that you're hardly going to store 20,000 objects in your loft, but they've done so charmingly, appropriately and cleverly.
So, what the excessively monikered Mr Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (which bits are his last name, I'm forced to wonder) mean by 'type'? The objects are arranged by what they do, not where they come from. So you'll find a display cabinet full of items used for smoking, or used against (or for) witchcraft, or to play music on, or to dress up with, or to assist with births...and so on and so on. Some of the (say) tobacco (or other substances) pipes will come from North America (both indigenous and European), some from Europe, some from Africa, some from Asia. Some from the last few years, others from centuries ago. The cases are not arranged in any order, so you can just wander at your leisure, and peer at the curiosities inside.
And you'll need to peer. The museum is very dark. There are, apparently, torches you can borrow. I wish I'd known this, as the labels are handwritten and Victorian in style and tiny. Without a torch, you really will need to squint to see them. Having said that, whilst the labels are quaint and interesting, you can just admire the oddities (and some items are very odd indeed - shrunken heads, anyone?). There are plenty of staff wandering around to explain and point out items of interest - my host for the day particularly wanted to show me the witch jar - apparently, the 'essence' (the staff member explained the jar probably contained hair or nail clippings or somesuch) of a witch was 'trapped' in the jar, thus preventing her bad influence from affecting later generations (or, indeed, current ones).
The museum isn't large, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's part of the Natural History museum, as access is gained from that. The Natural History museum is pretty cool (and, again, Victorian in feel - think stuffed animals), but it is well worth wandering to the back of that museum and entering the dark interior of the Pitt Rivers. The Pitt Rivers isn't large, yet you could still spend many a happy hour wandering amongst the cases. It's currently arranged over two floors (well, one main floor and a balcony) - a third is due to re-open sometime in 2010. Because of how it's laid out (in glass cases - both wall and free-standing), you could while away anything from a cursory half hour to half a day in there, and, were you to visit more than once, you'd find new treasures to entrance you each time. You'd never see anything the museum has to offer in just one visit.
The icing on the cake is that the museum is free. They ask for a voluntary donation, but this donation IS truly voluntary - there are collection boxes at the entrance and scattered throughout - there is no-one there bullying you to part with your hard-earned cash. I gladly stuck a couple of pounds in the box - every city should have such a gem as the Pitt Rivers.
I'd not recommend driving straight there, as Oxford is a real pig of a city to park in. Instead, either get a train, or drive to one of the Park and Rides just outside the city, and take an inexpensive bus from there into the city centre. From there, it is a short walk past Oxford's dreaming spires (c'mon, I could hardly write a review of an attraction in Oxford without including that phrase, now, could I?) to the building housing both the Pitt Rivers and the Natural History museum (watch out for the dinosaur footprints outside the building). There is a small (yet perfectly formed) gift shop, which isn't hideously expensive - though the only thing I purchased were a couple of £1.50 worry dolls. Although there are stairs leading to the main gallery (about half a dozen, I'd guess), there is a chair lift, and help is available to disabled visitors. The balcony floor is accessible via both lift and stairs, so folk in a wheelchair can still enjoy this eccentric and informative museum.
According to the leaflet, the museum is open on Mondays from 12.00 - 16.30, and Tuesdays to Sundays (and bank holiday Mondays) from 10.00 - 16.30. They do close at Easter and Christmas, but the leaflet advises that you check for the exact dates and times. If you'd like to know more, you can visit their website at www.prm.ox.ac.uk - well worth a visit, by the way.
If you have children, spend an hour there. If you have some time to spare, spend a couple of hours there. If you have an intense curiosity and sense of wonder, spend half a day there. But go there, and go more than once.
This museum is located in the heart of Oxford city centre and is therefore very easy to get to by car or bus. It's an impressive looking Victorian building with artefacts on two floors and soon to have a third floor added to it. All of the items in the museum are collected from around the world from explorers and travellers. It contains a wonderful collection of strange looking stuffed animals and skeletons, including those of dinosaurs. It also boasts lots of fossils and preserved insects and butterflies. Some of its strangest items are a collection of monkey skulls from pacific islands. The museum is very child friendly and has children's fun packs where children have to find things around the museum and there is always lots going on around Easter and Christmas time for children to enjoy. Another positive aspect is that the museum is free and because of its central location is a great attraction to visit in Oxford rather than paying to visit colleges.
I thought it was time to take a brief diversion away from my Bhutan and India holiday reviews and write about something even more exotic but a lot closer to home - The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. I am the sort of person who gets very attached to museums and even though this is a small one, it's right up in my top 10 with some of the more obvious candidates like the V&A and the British Museum. However, the Pitt Rivers isn't a museum that's particularly well known or well publicised - witness the fact that nobody has ever written about it for dooyoo. I rest my case with my tongue only slightly in my cheek - how famous can anything be if it's not be dooyoo-ed?
The Pitt Rivers Museum is a treasure chest of the weird and wonderful and ought to be on the must-see list of every tourist visiting Oxford but sadly, it rarely is. Those of us who know and love this quirky little museum are sometimes torn between the desire to sell its joys to the world and to keep it as our own special little secret. The Pitt Rivers is the sort of place you need to know exists in order to seek it out. You won't see it from the street because it's tucked away at the back of its sister museum, the much grander and more showy Oxford University Museum which I should stress is itself well worthy of a good visit too and neither will set you back a penny.
I have to confess that despite studying in a building right next door to the Oxford University Museum and taking lectures regularly in the building itself, I got through four years as a student in the city without ever venturing into the Pitt Rivers - mind you, the same could be said of the Museum of the History of Science which I lived right next to for a year and never bothered visiting either. When I finally did go in, I was bowled over by what I found.
**Who or What was Pitt Rivers?**
Lieutenant General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was a true Victorian eccentric and a man with a voracious appetite for collecting. As an army officer with a passion for archaeology and ethnology he travelled the world gathering goodies wherever he went. He didn't focus on any specific areas or specialise in particular countries, he just travelled around gathering masses of 'stuff' to take home to Blighty. Pitt Rivers collected just about anything and everything that could be encompassed under the very broad umbrella of 'Ethnography'. He travelled around the world and, a bit like me on my holidays, filled his luggage with all manner or weird stuff. Unlike me he then endowed his collection to Oxford University on the condition that they had to build a home for it and had to appoint a lecturer in anthropology. From his original bequest of 18000 items in 1884, the collection has expanded and today contains more than half a million pieces. This is not a place where you'd want to tackle the dusting.
**Why is this museum so unusual**
What makes the Pitt Rivers museum so different from most is the way it displays its items. Pitt Rivers was heavily influenced by the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and arranged the items in his collection in a combination of typology and chronologically that aimed to show how human ideas and behaviours had evolved around the world.
Most museums would put together all the exhibits from a particular country in one place, and all those from another in a different section. Or they might put everything from a particular historic period in one section. What the Pitt Rivers Museum does is display items according to what they are or how they are used - not by who made them or where they came from. Thus all the woven baskets go together, all the musical instruments are shown beside each other, jewellery is all in the same area regardless of whether it's fancy precious metals from Europe or feathers from the South Pacific or shells from native Americans. In doing this, the exhibition shows how people separated by vast distances and sometimes many centuries worked out different - or sometimes very similar - ways to solve the same problems. I love it!
There are some very controversial exhibits, not least the so-called 'shrunken heads' from Ecuador and Peru. Decades of debate has surrounded whether it's right and proper to exhibit human remains of this type and whether you are for or against, it's still fascinating to read about the process of shrinking the skin off the heads by filling them with hot sand. There are also mummies and other human remains which continue to be the subject of debate and periodically items do get returned to their original origins if it's considered appropriate.
One of my personal favourite exhibits is the 'Witch in a bottle' - a small glass bottle with a label on it warning people not to open it because there's a witch inside. Priceless but admittedly something you could very easily miss without the help of one of the museum's free maps or audio guides. I also love the feather coats from the south Pacific, the model boats and some of the more modern exhibits of Inuit clothing from northern Canada.
**A real 'experience'**
My description might sound a bit dry and dusty like some of the exhibits and it's important to remember that this is a serious academic teaching and research collection as well as one of the best free attractions in the city. However, there's something quite magical about the layout of the museum and the subdued lighting which, combined with the bizarre way that things are displayed means you never quite know what you might find round the next corner. Kids LOVE the Pitt Rivers because it's just so different from the normal modern-day museums that often try a bit too hard with their work sheets and slightly patronising 'push this button, touch this item' attempts to 'engage' with children. It's the kind of place where all sorts of spooky stories could be set and I believe Philip Pullman has included it in some of his stories though I have to confess I've not read any of them.
There's a fantastic free audio tour available which guides you through some of the famous or noteworthy exhibits but even with the map provided, it's easy to miss a few. The museum building has a large high central hall with cast iron balconies suspended around the outside of the room on two higher levels. Look upwards and you'll see that the vertical space is used as well as the horizontal, with a tall totem pole reaching up to the roof and some boats suspended in the roof space.
** Don't go and visit just yet **
The museum has recently built an extension to enable more of the collection to be exhibited and for this reason it's currently closed to the public and expected to reopen in May 2009. I'm planning to sign up for membership of the Friends of the Museum so I can support their work and - I hope - get invited to lots of cool events. Surely there must be a good party when they open up again! Who could resist warm wine, stale nibbles and an evening with some freaky old relics?
Don't just take my word for it that the Pitt Rivers is something special - the list of Patrons at the museum is very impressive and includes Sir David Attenborough, Michael Palin and writer Philip Pullman. If it's good enough for those three, you can be sure it's something special.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is world famous for its unusual Victorian atmosphere and impressive displays of strange and beautiful objects collected all over the world by travellers, scholars, colonial officers and university students, right up to the present day. Masks, mummies, textiles and toys crowd the cases and the totem pole is three floor highs. An audio guide features Sir David Attenborough.