Oxford: The Pitt Rivers Museum

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.


The museum is located at the back of Oxford’s Natural History Museum (both museums are free to visit), so you first walk through a room full of rather delightful taxidermy (and a dodo: the dodo is just a model, but is still pretty impressive (you can see him near the end of this post), and there is an actual preserved dodo head in the museum’s collections, though it is too fragile to display), but otherwise quite a light, airy, and open space, only to pop through a doorway at the back and be met with the sheer pandemonium that is the Pitt Rivers. I really don’t know how else to describe it, but you can probably get a sense of what I mean from the pictures (though it doesn’t fully convey the assault on the senses that the museum provides – well, sight and smell anyway, as there’s also a strong smell of mothballs that pervades the air when you’re inside).
The museum is unusual (well, maybe I should say one way the museum is unusual) because it is arranged typologically rather than chronologically or by location, or one of the other normal ways museums are organised. This means you get lots of cases full of just guns, say, or shoes, irrespective of where or when they’re from. If things serve the same basic function, they’re all lumped together, which is interesting because, to quote the museum’s website: “This way of displaying means that you can see how many different people have solved common problems and how many different solutions have been found over time or in different parts of the world.” This was originally done because Pitt Rivers was keen on the history of design (and ethnography, obviously), but the museum just decided to roll with it even after the signage no longer necessarily reflected this.

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.


Bonus picture of me on my first visit here almost exactly six years ago, which I think illustrates the vagaries of British weather quite well (and also possibly how much I’ve aged).


      1. The Bodleian Library strikes me as the kind of place I would want to live in, plus I hear the Ashmolean Museum sounds great too. More complicated to get there than Cambridge sadly.

      2. Ah, they’re about the same distance from London by train, so it’s easy enough for me either way. Don’t really know where all the routes go from Scotland! I do like the Fitzwilliam better than the Ashmolean though!

      3. The Fitzwilliam is excellent. It is great in every way.

        Oxford is reachable though by changing in London (by plane or train) or Birmingham. It’ll happen one day.

    1. I’m not sure how many objects are actually on display, just that they have somewhere between a quarter and half a million (the website lists different numbers), of which “a large percentage” is on display. I could believe that there are half a million things in there!

  1. The Pitt Rivers museum is a wonderfully odd place! An assault on the senses and overwhelming are very apt descriptions – I’ve only visited once, for a couple of hours, but I felt as though I only took in a fraction of what was on display. I’d love to go back, it’s the sort of museum that cries out for repeat visits.

  2. Holy smokes, I want to be there right now. In fact, when I saw the first incredible photo, and all the lovely balconies, I thought “I want to live there” – but then I read your mothball comment and I tempered it to “I’d spend a half a day there.” Mothballs are not something I can imagine getting used to.
    But anyhow, wow – what a riotous bunch of oddball bits. I think I’d enjoy the strange grouping method. It kinda seems like it’d be more fun. Though I suspect I’d need a lot of breaks to let my eyes rest.
    This will not surprise you but that large, straw-man figure near the masks freaked me out. But I love the Scare Devil – he looks like he just wants a little hug. And I love the skulls (and what I think is one of the shrunken heads?) under the fantastic heading “Treatment of Dead Enemies.” Like you said, probably not PC but it’s the kind of thing I hoped a museum would have when I was a kid – likely thanks to Indiana Jones. Though I probably would’ve scooted past them like you did if I’d actually come across them. I was a stone-cold scaredy cat.
    Both photos of you are lovely – I don’t think you’ve aged at all. Was that bear as incredibly soft as it looks?

    1. Honestly, I got used to the smell after not very long (and my closets are full of those moth hangers, which I guess smell better than a traditional mothball, but maybe I just go around stinking of mothballs all the time, and I don’t even notice anymore. Probably my colleagues all call me Smellica or some such behind my back).
      I’m not a huge fan of straw men either because of The Wicker Man (original version) which I saw once and then never ever again. But yes, those are the shrunken heads in that case, and Indiana Jones is the best, except for that one I pretend doesn’t exist.
      The bear was very soft indeed, and thank you! I have a lot more grey hairs than I did six years ago (at least I think I do, but I used to dye my hair so it’s hard to say, and honestly I don’t mind them anyway. They’re witchy!), but as long as my face is still relatively unlined, I’m happy!

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