Sunday, March 17, 2024


The Pitt Rivers Museum is the most overwhelming I have experienced to date. Holding around seven hundred thousand objects, most of which are on display, it is a museum of archaeology, anthropology and ethnology: devoted to the study of humanity through its objects, it is the closest I have encountered to a museum of “everything”. It naturally also becomes a museum of museum displays, charting how the acknowledgement and understanding of our past has developed.

Publicly accessed via a single arched doorway at the back of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, despite being of a similar scale, the Pitt Rivers is a grotto of glass cases, more specifically a gigantic room with a hive of cabinets spread through the ground floor, with two mezzanines looking over it. Deciding to start at the top, the lift opened at a display of handguns and rifles, itself facing a wall of rudimentary clubs – spears and harpoons were at the other end of the walkway.

Among the pictures I took while at the museum were a helmet made from the skin of a porcupine fish; packs of various playing cards, displaying the link to the original tarot cards; American Indian headdresses; “a string of Chinese cash”; sword sheaths; boomerangs; Samurai armour; a box of the original table tennis game for which the name “Ping Pong” was trademarked; and various wooden shields, including four painted with depictions of the comic book hero The Phantom. 

Armed with the knowledge of what a Colt .45 looks like, you get a hang of how the museum is organised ethnologically by type of object, aiding comparisons between cultures, rather than simply by time – it feels more like browsing an encyclopaedia, or searching Wikipedia, than reading a history book. Augustus Pitt Rivers, the retired Army officer and archaeologist whose collection formed the basis of the museum, to which others’ expeditions and donations have since contributed, was among the first to insist upon all discovered artefacts being methodically catalogued and preserved for study, rather than just looking for treasure. At the same time, having such a repository for examples of many types of objects that matched when I have bought examples of physical media, like a laser disc or a Sony U-Matic tape, so I could experience them by touch – reading about something is often not enough.

This record-taking developed over time: an ivory harpoon head has its origin and catalogue number written directly on it: “W. Eskimo / P.R. Coll / 1884.20.30”, although a caption under it also specifies its North American origin and leaf-shaped stone blade along with correcting itself to “Inuit” – sometimes the catalogue details is all we know about the item. Knotted tags of handwritten text, and tiny captions of densely-packed text in Times New Roman, eventually gives way to numbered pointers to clearer captions to the side in larger sans-serif fonts like Helvetica and Gill Sans. 

With the density of objects on show, it was inevitable that, unless I sat down for a while, I would start looking past them, or through them, to the construction of their displays – if they had not removed their display of shrunken heads during the pandemic-enforced closure in 2020, part of the efforts in decoloniality that further enhance the understanding of the museum’s objects, I doubt I would have noticed.

My main takeaway from the Pitt Rivers Museum was that I don’t know of anywhere else like it – all that is missing are objects from the present day. There is a feeling of clutter, which was also felt sixty years ago: a proposed new building, designed by Pier Luigi Nervi, would have arranged its categories circularly around a glass dome, spreading outwards through time. It looked not unlike the future pavilions at Disney’s Epcot Center, but fundraising efforts petered out by 1970. A new building, with more space to think about the objects, should be considered again, or at least build its own entrance from outside. 

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