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Anthropology

As some of you may know, I went to Oxford last weekend, and spent a number of hours at the Pitt Rivers, the city’s anthropology and archaeology museum. I’d heard many things about this museum before–that it was a “mess”, or maddeningly dark and cluttered, or antiquated, or that it depicted non-Western cultures as overly weird compared to Western ones–so I was very much looking forward to visiting it myself and forming my own opinion about it.

As it turns out, I think the Pitt Rivers has become my new favourite museum–and here are 7 reasons why.

1. It’s all about celebrating human creativity. Where most museums will divide and display their objects based on their geographic region, the Pitt Rivers divides and displays them according to their function, or the common problems they were meant to solve. So there’s a display that’s all about bagpipes, one that’s all about fire-making technology, one that’s dedicated to traps made to catch small mammals (mostly rats and mice), one that’s dedicated to amulets–and, in each of this display, objects from the South American rainforest will be sitting next to objects from nineteenth-century Naples and ones from modern-day Oxfordshire and ones from Ancient Egypt and ones collected by Captain Cook in the Pacific. So you can compare and contrast the different ways people have done the same things across the world and throughout history and prehistory, and marvel at just how damn inventive humans can be.

A display that's all about hair removal technology--that is, mostly, razors.

A display that’s all about hair removal technology–that is, mostly, razors.

2. Each visit will yield new discoveries. Yes, it’s dark–to see some of the objects, you actually have to ask for a torch at the front desk. And yes, the displays are amazingly cluttered and crowded, with labels inscribed with sometimes really tiny handwriting–for which you may want to ask for a magnifying glass at the front desk, too. But this means that, each time you visit, you’ll definitely find something you hadn’t noticed before. And, since entry to museum’s entry is free, you can visit as many times as you want.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display--or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display–or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

3. It challenges you to think for yourself. There are no clear start- or end-points by which to organise your visit. This might, at first, cause confusion and a sense of disorientation. But, actually, it’s liberating–you are encouraged to make your own sense of the museum, and draw your own connections. (NB There are a number of hints, here and there, of what the museum wants you to reflect on, but they definitely enhance the visiting experience rather than take away from it.)

3. They take great pains to avoid stereotypes of other cultures being “weird” or “exotic” when compared to Western ones. Specifically, they’ve included a large number of modern-day or relatively recent European objects in the displays–from a breast implant in the display about body modification, to Oxfordshire skates in the skates and snow shoes display, to Eiffel Tower souvenirs, to playing card decks that people still use today in Italy. But most impressive is what they’re doing with the shrunken heads–which merits its own, separate point.

4. What they’re doing with the shrunken heads. Through labels underneath the heads themselves, a cheap pamphlet you can get at the museum shop, and both text and a podcast on the museum website, the Pitt Rivers has made a valiant attempt at explaining that the heads are not something weird and barbaric that some violent and primitive tribe still do in some remote jungle location today, but something that occurred in a particular time and place but doesn’t happen any more, and that, in that particular time and place, it made sense within a particular worldview. Most wonderfully, the museum points out, not only that violence has long been a feature of European life as well, but also that the fact that Europeans collected these heads, and display them in places like museums, is just as interesting to think about, as a cultural phenomenon, as the act of shrinking the heads itself.

5. You can see the following things:

A "philosophical" snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the word for one of the Hindu virtues, and allow you climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the word for a sin, and force to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A “philosophical” snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the words for Hindu virtues, and allow you to climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the words for sins, and force you to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish, from Kiribati, in Micronesia.

A Micronesian sailing chart from the nineteenth-century–the sticks represent the main directions of wind and currents, and the shells represent islands. Photo courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers' eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers’ eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A policeman's amulet from nineteenth-century France--made out of a coin, a piece of hangman's rope, and the skin of a "sadistic murderer named Campi".

A policeman’s amulet from nineteenth-century France–made out of a coin, a piece of hangman’s rope, and the skin of “a sadistic murderer named Campi”.

6. The amazing website. Seriously, if you can’t visit the museum in person, then the website is a more than adequate substitute. And if you have visited the museum in person, the website has loads of resources through which to find out even more about the objects you’ve seen. My favourite section is probably the one in which you can click through the museum’s huge collection of amulets, but there are also detailed introductions to the museum’s biggest or most important collections (such as the South American rainforest material, the photographs of Native North American life, or the things collected by Captain Cook), and a staggering number of blogs and multimedia projects that I’ve barely had the chance to explore properly.

The Pitt Rivers, like any other museum, is not without its flaws. For example, I think they could do a better job at problematising their Benin collection, which, like the Benin collection at the British Museum and a number of other places both in the UK and in Europe, was forcibly removed (some might say looted) from its country of origin by the British during a “punitive expedition” in 1897. The Pitt Rivers does acknowledge the origin of these objects, but I think they could talk about the ethics of displaying them in the same way that they discuss the ethics of displaying the shrunken heads.

Equally, I’m sure there are other things about the Pitt Rivers that are super-cool, besides the ones I’ve listed, but either I don’t know about them, or don’t know them well enough to write confidently about them.

But the main point of this post is that absolutely fell in love with this museum–and that, hopefully, whoever ends up reading it will want to go, and fall in love with it too.

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