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).

Ljubljana, Slovenia: Slovene Ethnographic Museum


I visited the Slovene Ethnographic Museum primarily on the recommendation of a friend, as my natural inclination would have been to seek out something a bit quirkier (like the Tobacco museum, which I think was actually owned by a tobacco company who I’m sure have purely altruistic motives…).  That being said, there were enough weird and wonderful things inside the Ethnographic Museum to hold my attention.  Like the demented rabbit totem shown above, who looked like an even scarier cousin of that rabbit in Donnie Darko.


The Ethnographic Museum was located in a section of Ljubljana which was described as “artistic” and “trendy,” which I think we all know are just euphemisms for the shitty end of town.  I exaggerate slightly; nowhere in Ljubljana seemed dangerous or or especially rundown, it just wasn’t as attractive as the Old Town.  The museum was part of a complex that seemed to include a few other museums, or maybe art studios?  It was hard to tell, as the signs were all in Slovenian.  Anyway, admission was pretty cheap, only 4 euros or so.  The building had at least 4 floors, but as far as I could tell, there was only exhibition space on two of those floors, though I think I might have missed something.


I’d never been to an ethnographic museum before, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.  I was hoping to learn more about Slovenian culture and history.  What I got instead was the most self-reflective museum I’ve ever encountered.  I started with the “Between Nature and Culture” exhibit on the 3rd floor, which opened with a collection of objects from around the world, and musings on the definitions of ethnicity and identity.  The museum then began philosophising about the nature of museums themselves, and the purpose of collecting.  I honestly felt like I was back at university, sitting through a Historical Methods class or something. It was rather bizarre to find a museum contemplating its own existence.

Me wearing some sort of head-bag.

Me wearing some sort of head-bag.

All of the signs at the start of the museum were translated into English (obviously, as I’m not canny enough to pick up on introspection written in Slovenian), but as I progressed into the section on Slovenian culture, the English was limited to booklets at the end of each exhibit that had little blurbs about the various objects.  Still, I enjoyed looking at the variety of Slovenian artefacts, in particular the beehive paintings (I’ve read that there’s a whole beehive panel museum in Slovenia, but I wasn’t able to track it down, so it may have closed.  Another reason why someone needs to update Weird Europe, as a 15 year old travel guide isn’t that useful!), and the intriguing wooden toys, especially the curious fellow seen below.

A man and his pig.

A man and his pig.

I wasn’t sure whether to head up to the 4th floor, as there were no barriers preventing it, but it wasn’t listed on the map, so I headed downstairs instead. In retrospect, I think they might have been hiding a special exhibit on collars up there, as I didn’t see it elsewhere in the museum, but I wasn’t bothered enough to go back up and investigate.  The 2nd floor was the home of “I, We and Others: Images of my World,” which sounded, if anything even more self-analytical than the previous exhibition.  However, I’ll never actually know, as nothing on this level had an English translation.  I feel like a spoilt American complaining about this, since I was in Slovenia, and they shouldn’t have to cater to me.  That said, the museum was near empty, and the only other people in there were a French couple who rushed through all the bits with no translation, so there’s obviously a market for English captions besides just native English speakers.  I think if they want to attract more tourist trade, they’d do well to at least put out some booklets explaining the exhibit in various languages.


As far as I could tell (gleaned mainly from the museum brochure and the objects on display), the exhibit focused on the stories of Slovenian immigrants, and finding one’s place in the world, as well as the struggle to identify with a culture.  I really, really wish I had been able to read the text in this section, as these are all topics I dwell on quite a bit myself, which I think is fairly common to the expat experience.  I’m never sure whether I identify more with Britain or America, as I never feel completely home in either country anymore, and that’s without even dragging my ancestry into things. (Not that I feel particularly Polish or Slovenian, aside from being able to make pierogi, and participating in a few other family traditions). I guess even without translations, the Ethnographic Museum seems to have led me into introspection (not that it’s hard to do)!


The saving grace of this section (for me) was the videos, which helpfully had English captions available.  They featured a number of older Slovenes discussing growing up in foreign countries, fairy tales, or just their daily life.  I genuinely enjoy listening to the elderly talk about their lives (probably largely to do with missing my grandparents), so I liked the videos a lot, and ended up watching most of them. Since I never found the special exhibit, that was pretty much all there was to the Ethnographic Museum.


I’ll give the Ethnographic Museum 3/5.  The sections I could read piqued my interest (even if they could have cut back on the philosophy a wee bit), but there was too much in the museum that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate due to having no idea what was going on.  I think with a more visually based museum, translations aren’t quite as necessary, but this museum’s exhibits were so dependent on the written word that I couldn’t help feeling left out.