Saturday 3 September 2011

The Pitts

After having been in Oxford for nearly seven years, today (or, by the time you read this, yesterday) I finally got around to visiting the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Their website describes the collection as being anthropology and world archeology - but it would be as true to describe it as 'stuff'.

There is a mind-boggling assortment of objects in the collection, which covers one main floor and two galleries above it. They are grouped in categories such as 'Humans Depicted in Art' or 'Treatment of Dead Enemies' - there are cases devoted solely to zithers; to model canoes; to beads used as currency... and so on and so on. Within these cases everything is jumbled together - objects from all periods and countries. It's rather overwhelming - and a wonderful, dizzying experience.

There isn't much description - this isn't one of those museums which has six panels of writing for every artefact. When information is supplied, often it is delightfully vague, on little handwritten tags which, as often as not, forget to mention anything so quotidian as the century of origin (see above).

Apparently the collection was overhauled a few years ago - actually, I remember it happening. I recall how aghast people were that the disorganisation would have been firmly shaken into organisation, and that the Pitt-Rivers would have lost its charm. They needn't have worried. It's great fun to be able to open a discreet little drawer, and find a varied selection of globular flutes tucked away.

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section on the history of writing and writing instruments - including something from 2500 BC. Here's a quick, slightly blurry snap of about a sixth of what they had on display in this area.

Although I have put off going for many years, and have learnt remarkably little today (except for the amazing coffins which are produced in Ghana - they had a special video about it) I would thoroughly recommend the Pitt-Rivers to any visitor to Oxford - simply because of its ingenious eccentricity. Each artefact in the collection (apparently about half a million) represents hours of human labour - to have them all gathered in one place creates an astonishing miscellany of humans and their infinite variety.

And speaking of eccentricity... I decided to experiment with my baking. These are ginger cupcakes with lime-flavoured icing. I love ginger and I love lime, and thought these flavours might well taste nice together: I think I was right! They certainly aren't aesthetically up to scratch (they all overflowed the cases, for one thing) but they're fun - and I think they'll prove worth trying again!

P.S. it's Our Vicar's Wife's birthday today - wish her a good one!


  1. Haha... While I was there, someone described the Pitts-Rivers to a friend of mine as "Horders: the Museum." I wasn't bold enough to visit. I stuck to the Ashmolean =)

  2. The Pitt-Rivers is one of my favourite places in Oxford. We love the attached Nat Hist museum too.

    Did you see the shrunken heads and voodoo skulls? They're fascinatingly macabre. I prefer it to the Ashmolean, because of its eccentricity.

  3. I loved visiting the Pitt Rivers when i was in Oxford some years ago--shrunken heads, witch bottles, writing instruments, canoes, model houses, etc. Never know what you'll find. There's a good poem about it but unfortunately I'm drawing a blank on the author.

    Susan E

  4. The pic of the writing utensils made me very grateful for my ball point and gel pens. :) Thanks for sharing these with us.

    Many happy returns to OVW, and blessings on her day! I hope y'all celebrated early with her this week when you all got to be home at the same time.

  5. I can't believe it is your first visit! I've only been to Oxford on about 50 occasions but I have been nearly ten times to the Pitt-Rivers. I hope you have been to the Museum of the History of Science another rather eccentric institution.

  6. Samara - sorry I didn't say goodbye when you left! But I love that nickname for the Pitt-Rivers, it is perfect!

    Annabel - I deliberately didn't see the shrunken heads, actually... too squeamish for that, and I think it's too undignified for the people in question... :s

    Susan E - it is a wonderful place to happen upon extraordinary things! Although so overwhelming in its quantities...

    Susan H - Monday was supposed to be about Colin's qualification, but I did manage to slip a birthday present to OVW whilst I was there!

    Peter - I think you are definitely more suited to the museum than I am! I did wander round the Nat Hist first, but, erm...


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