At last, here’s the museum I’ve been referencing during the whole Oxford adventure: the Pitt Rivers. The museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Pitt Rivers (I believe he went by Henry), who was already a military man and a collector when he unexpectedly fell into a boatload of money in 1880 (a distant relative died and left it to him), which of course meant even more collecting. I get the impression he was a Henry Wellcome type figure (or Frederick Horniman, or any of the other thousands of wealthy male collectors who seemed to be floating around Victorian England, throwing their money at exotic taxidermy and amusing statues with giant phalluses). The original collection was about 30,000 objects which over the years has expanded to around half a million.
If it looks overwhelming, it is also because it is apparently the most “exhibited” museum in the world per square metre (this was something I overheard a tour guide say, and I think basically means that they have the most amount of crap piled into a space that it is possible to have. Exhibited sounds fancier though). The museum takes up three floors, and each case has extra drawers in it that you can open (though most of the drawers are not organised in any way, and have no labels, so there’s not much point) so it is really, really a lot of crap. I spent hours there on my first visit, but having already seen it, I could afford to be a bit more economical with my time (after all, I wanted to get in a stop at the original Ben’s Cookies before we had to catch the train home) on this visit, and go directly to my favourite artefacts.
Naturally, that includes these fabulous puppets, located near the entrance (I feel like I need to give directions, or you’ll never find this stuff otherwise). I think Professor England or random angry Russian woman is my favourite, though of course I have a soft spot for George Washington too (frankly, I’m surprised there was just a puppet of him here, and not his false teeth, because every other damn museum seems to own a pair. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). I love the “scare devil” to bits too. And I’m pretty sure one of the main reasons I visited Pitt Rivers in the first place was to see their shrunken heads, very non-PC though they are (the Natural History Museum in Cleveland had shrunken heads too when I was a kid, and they scared the crap out of me back then. I used to close my eyes and run past the case where they were kept, but I somehow still grew up into a weird adult who loves this kind of stuff).
I do think the ground floor in general probably has the most interesting artefacts in it, and, totally not an artefact, but they have a donation box that features curators performing a sort of begging dance for your donations, which I think is really cute (though I don’t seem to have a photo of it). There are varying amounts of text in the cases – some sections have quite detailed information about the background of the objects, others just have simple labels stating what the objects are and where they came from.
I also quite like the first floor, especially the display on games, which includes an early Italian deck of Tarot cards; and the rather large display on body modification. Well, the tattoo section was really interesting anyway; the sections on foot binding and head shaping just made me feel a bit ill. There’s also a display of artefacts collected on Cook’s voyages, which is damn cool (really looking forward to the upcoming Cook exhibition at the BL!).
The second floor reflects Pitt Rivers’ greatest passion, which was his collection of firearms and other weapons (thanks to his military background, that was how he first got into collecting). Unfortunately, guns are definitely not my passion (which is probably an unusual view for an American, I know, but I actually hate the damn things), so this is the floor I spent the least amount of time on. I do like the Japanese armour and the horned skull though!
I swear the Pitt Rivers used to have a shop, because I remember buying postcards the last time I was here, but they are in the process of doing construction work (as evidenced by the banging and drilling I could feel under my feet on the upper levels, which actually felt like a lovely massage (my feet always hurt), but was a bit worrying in terms of structural integrity), so it seems to have disappeared (the Natural History Museum has a shop, and they do have some good dodo merchandise, but nothing Pitt Rivers related). There was a small display on Tito in Africa in a ground floor gallery, which I was briefly excited by when I mis-read it as “Toto in Africa” (and had that song stuck in my head all day as a result) but I didn’t actually look around very much because I was anxious to get food before the train (in addition to Ben’s Cookies, we also stopped at a place called Dosa Park across from the station for an early dinner before we left, because I love dosa, and get real hangry real fast if I don’t eat (and actually, it was lucky we did, because the District Line was completely screwed when we got back, and what should have been like half an hour journey back from Paddington turned into a nightmare two hours, but that’s another story.)). But Pitt Rivers as a whole is an amazing experience, though admittedly not the most culturally sensitive in parts (I think some of the labels are probably decades old), and I definitely think it is worth seeing just for the experience of standing there and gazing at their awesomely cluttered galleries (and the Natural History Museum isn’t half bad either, if you have time. They let you pet some of the taxidermy!). 4/5.