Last Friday we went to the Museum of Natural History in Oxford as they were having a free out-of-hours event for the annual Museums at Night weekend.
Despite having lived in Didcot for over a year now I’ve only visited this museum once and that was only a couple of weeks ago. I was museum’ed out on that visit after about 3 hours but I knew there was loads I hadn’t got to see so I was looking forward to going back.
The museum is like a smaller version of the Natural History Museum in London, with dinosaurs and skeletons of rare animals in the entrance hall to explore. But this museum has something extra, the Pitt Rivers museum is housed at the back. Have you ever been? It’s an incredible collection of bizarre and wonderful things from around the world which started when General Pitt Rivers donated his collection of archaeological and anthropological items to the university.
The collection includes over half a million items which range from the bizarre (a spear with spikes made from a human femur?) to the beautiful (floor-length capes made from individually hand stitched feathers).
Naturally, the shrunken heads tend to garner the most attention, and this event was no exception. These battle- trophies are gruesome in the daytime but even worse when exploring the museum by torchlight (a super-fun albeit gimmicky idea that was part of the event).
I was particularly fascinated that the hair on these tiny human heads was so intact and seemed to fit the head so well. The Pitt Rivers explains the shrinking process here, but I can’t imagine that shrinking the skin would have the same effect on the hair, so now I can’t shake the idea that these tribes employed hairdresses purely for their shrunken heads!
Something I noticed when I visited before is that most of the objects have notes about where and when they were collected written directly onto them. While i understand the practicalities of labelling the object itself so the label can’t be lost, it’s amazing to me that the collectors of the items who had travelled half way round the world to find them were happy to then graffiti them.
When the lights came on signalling the evening was over we’d only managed to explore two of the three floors, and reluctantly we left to get the train home.
I think the Pitt Rivers is quickly becoming one of my favourite museums and I’ll definitely be going back soon. In the meantime I’ve been checking out some of the prints from the museum on this website – they’ve got 74 pages of incredible images. I’ll post some of my favourites tomorrow.