The coolest museum in the world

museum, Pitt Rivers museum
Oxford is full of things to see such as medieval colleges and a lovely stretch of the Thames. Of course, you can find similar sights in other parts of England, although not in such a dense concentration that makes Oxford a perfect day trip from London. The one thing Oxford has that is truly unique is the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Pitt Rivers is laid out the way museums used to be: cabinets packed with artifacts and the walls and even the ceiling adorned with totem poles, statues, shields, spears, and canoes. Even when it opened in the 1880s it was a bit different from other museums, though. Instead of the displays being organized by region and period, they’re organized by use. For example, one case has fire-making equipment, ranging from simple wooden tools used by Australian Aborigines to matches from 19th century Europe to rather dangerous-looking lighters from a hundred years ago.

The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects collected by anthropologist Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in how different cultures solved the same problems, such as lighting a fire, creating currency, or dealing with the dead. The collection has now grown to half a million artifacts from pretty much every culture and time period.

You name it, they have it. Egyptian mummy? Check. Inuit snow goggles? Check. Witch in a bottle? Check. Helmet made from a blowfish? Check. They even have a nice collection of shrunken heads.

%Gallery-131982%My five-year-old son loves this place. All kids love this place. In fact, it regularly gets chosen as Britain’s favorite museum. At the door they give you a flashlight so you can shine it into the dimly lit cases and pretend to be an explorer. Under the cases are drawers you can open to reveal more stuff.

It never ends. We’ve been in there dozens of times and each time we discover something new. A guard who has been working there for ten years told me the same thing. My kid has never gotten bored at the Pitt Rivers and often asks to go there when we’re in Oxford. Unlike in a lot of museums, you hear more kids complaining that they’re leaving than that they’re going in.

And if that doesn’t make it the coolest museum in the world, I don’t know what does.

Five places to see shrunken heads

srunken head, shrunken heads
Call me sick, but I’ve always been fascinated with shrunken heads.

“OK, you’re sick!”

Fine, but you’re still reading this, aren’t you?

Throughout history many cultures took heads as trophies, including the ancestors of many Gadling readers–the Celts. Celtic warriors used to cut the heads off of enemies and attach them to their chariots to look extra intimidating in battle. Japanese samurai, Maori warriors, and angry peasants in the French Revolution all took enemy heads as trophies.

Yet only one culture, the Jivaro of South America, actually shrank heads. Living in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Peru, the Jivaro people developed the strange custom of cutting off an enemy’s head and shrinking it down to the size of a man’s fist. Called tsantsa, these shrunken heads served not only as proof of a warrior’s valor but also as a way to destroy the victim’s spirit, which might otherwise take revenge.

The process was gruesome but simple. Different sources give different recipes. This one comes from the well-researched site Head Hunter. Once you get a head, cut open the back so the skin and hair can be peeled from the skull. Throw the skull into a river as an offering to the anaconda. Sew the eyes shut, and close the mouth with wooden spikes or thorns. Boil the head for no more than two hours, then turn the skin inside out to clean off any nasty residue. Turn the skin right side out and sew up the slit you cut in the back.

%Gallery-126587%To shrink further, drop hot stones through the neck hole. Roll them around to ensure even heating and prevent any unsightly burn marks. The head will continue to shrink until the neck hole is too small to allow stones to enter. Now use hot sand to shrink the head even more. Press hot stones against the face to singe off any excess hair and shape the face to look nice, and use a hot machete to dry the lips, which will not have shrunk as much as the rest of the head.

Now put three chonta, or palm thorns, through the lips and tie them together with long, decorative string. Hang it over a fire to harden. You may also want to blacken the skin with charcoal to avoid the man’s spirit from seeing out. Pierce a hole through the top of the head so you can put a string through and wear your trophy around your neck.

The whole process takes about a week but with a bit of patience and practice, you’ll have a keepsake of your favorite battle and a surefire icebreaker at parties.

Shrunken heads fascinated early European explorers. They became a hot commodity and warfare increased in order to meet the demand. Often tribesmen found it easier and safer to make a fake head by using an animal head or making one out of leather. Some researchers estimate that up to 80% of all heads on display in museums are actually fake. This week a study was released of a DNA analysis of a shrunken head in an Israeli museum that turned out to be genuine. Researchers are hoping to test more heads to determine if they’re legit.

Some fake heads are actually real, in a sense. When a warrior killed an enemy but couldn’t get the head for whatever reason, or killed an enemy who was a blood relative and therefore wasn’t allowed to take the head, he could make a head from that of a sloth as a stand-in. Magically this was considered a real tsantsa.

Controversy over displaying human remains and the demands by some tribes to have them back has meant that many museums have removed their displays of shrunken heads. So where can you still see these little darlings?

Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. This branch of Ripley’s fun chain of museums has several shrunken heads on display.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle, Washington. Forget the Space Needle, this is the coolest attraction in Seattle. Once you’ve seen the real shrunken heads, head over the the gift shop to buy a cruelty-free replica.

Lightner Museum, Saint Augustine, Florida. This huge collection of nineteenth century bric-a-brac housed in an old mansion is an odd place to find a shrunken head collection, but people collected all sorts of things back then.

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, England. Britain’s favorite museum has artifacts from all the world’s cultures, including a display case full of shrunken heads and trophy heads.

Madrid, Spain. Get a double dose of headhunting here at the Museo de América and the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

If you’d rather do some armchair traveling, check out the shrunken heads flickr group and Doc Bwana’s Shrunken Head Museum online.

Do you know of any other places still exhibiting shrunken heads? Tell us about it in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Joe Mabel. In my opinion these are fakes, mostly made from monkeys, but they do look cool]

Museum Junkie: England’s most unique museum reopens

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.

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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.