Oxford’s famous Pitt Rivers Museum has reopened this month after more than a year of remodeling.
The famous Victorian displays, a massive collection of diverse anthropological objects in a large gallery and two upper floors, have remained untouched, preserving an almost unique set of displays dating back more than a century.
One of the most popular cases is the one involving death rituals, which has a spooky group of skulls and shrunken heads. A display about smoking contains a Chinese opium pipe with some suspicious-looking resin and a diagram of how to make a pipe by poking a hole through the ground. The museum as an especially good collection of Native American art, such as this woodcut print entitled “Hungry Bear” by Coast Salish artist Jody Wilson, depicting a grizzly bear in the act of catching a salmon.
The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects from Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in the evolution of objects and organized his collection typologically, placing all items of the same use into a single case in order to show the evolution of form within and across cultures. The collection now boasts half a million artifacts from hundreds of cultures. The cases are cluttered with objects, and below them are drawers that can be opened to reveal more artifacts. The staff hand out free flashlights (called torches in England) so visitors and peer into the deeper recesses of the cases where even more treasures are hidden.
This style of organization, so different from most modern museums, makes for a fascinating visit. For example, the case labeled Animal Forms in Art has dozens of animal representations from various cultures, some stylized, some realistic, some for worship, some for play. There’s an ancient Egyptian ram’s head made of wood, a nineteenth-century Danish piggybank, and a wooden owl carved by the Ainu about 1900 A.D., packed in with dozens of other objects.
An example of how objects can change their meaning over time is shown in drawer 29.3, labeled Amulets, Religious Artifacts, and Offerings. Inside are nine ushabti, little glazed figurines that the ancient Egyptians put in their tombs to act as servants in the afterlife. But these particular ones date from only a hundred years ago and were carried by Egyptian peasant men who went from village to village. Women would place them on the ground and jump over them in order to become fertile. One wonders if the wandering ushabti carriers had anything to do with it.
The whole effect of all the world’s objects crammed together in the same room is somewhat dizzying; even the walls and ceilings are decorated with totem poles, kayaks, and outrigger canoes.
The upper floor containing an immense array of weapons from all periods and cultures won’t be open until spring of 2010, but the two floors that are already open to the public will give any museum junkie several days’ worth of exploration.