The Museum of Everything

October 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers Museum

My boyfriend had a meeting in Oxford over the weekend and I tagged along. I too had a mission – think of it as an extension of my London Museum Challenge. You see, I’ve been to Oxford many times over the last thirteen years, but I’ve never been able to resist the siren song of the Ashmolean Museum. Not that this is in any way a problem – the Ashmolean is one of my favourite museums in the country – but it means that in all this time, I’ve never visited the Pitt Rivers Museum. And, having had a small taste of the collection at an enchanting exhibition of charms and amulets at the Wellcome Collection last year, I’d decided that had to change.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is Oxford’s anthropology and archaeology museum. It was founded in 1884 by the archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, who gave his collection of 22000 objects to the university on the condition that they appoint a lecturer in anthropology. The original collection has now grown to about half a million objects, but the museum itself – a splendid Victorian glass-and-iron edifice, like a modest younger cousin of the Crystal Palace – still looks much the same. What really sets it apart from other museums of its type is the way the collection is displayed… but I’ll get to that presently.

Evil eye amulets

After saying goodbye to my boyfriend in front of Christ Church, I headed off to the Pitt Rivers, deliberately choosing a route that wouldn’t take me in sight of the Ashmolean. I then made my way through the labyrinth that is the Natural History Museum (which is partly closed until next year – a pity because it looked interesting in its own right), through the portals of the Pitt Rivers… and immediately underwent a severe, Grade A curatorial geek-out (what, you didn’t know that was the scientific term?).

Noh masks

I don’t quite know where to start. The fact that the Pitt Rivers is so gloriously old-fashioned in its setting and its display, with its army of wood-framed vitrines, that it puts the Horniman to shame. The sheer mad overabundance of both the cases on the ground floor, through which you have to sidle and twist like a rock climber, and of their contents, crammed in with a profusion that seems in some instances to defy the laws of physics. The truly mind-boggling variety of the exhibits. It would take much less time to say what the Pitt Rivers doesn’t have in its collection than what it does.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure there is anything in existence, an example of which cannot be found there.

Feather ornaments

The most striking element of this overflowing treasure house of a museum, though, is the order imposed on the objects. Augustus Pitt Rivers insisted that they be arranged not by the culture that produced them, but by type and function, and that, by and large, is still the approach the museum takes today. Compared with other museums of its type, that method can at first seem hopelessly outmoded, but the closer you look and the more time you spend watching the displays unfold, the more illuminating it becomes.

Take, for example, a case full of ceramic vessels with animal decorations, or a case filled with lamps and other forms of lighting. They contain objects of their stated type, made all over the world, over the course of centuries, in some cases millennia. Taken together, they suggest that people, wherever and whenever they lived, have always had the same basic needs and desires (light, shelter, food and places to store it, clothing, the need to believe in a higher power, to create) and have found ways to satisfy them that show both remarkable creativity and unexpected common ground.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the display – although it doesn’t in any way trumpet itself – is that in stark contrast to the ethnographic museums I grew up with (I’m thinking of Chicago’s Field Museum), European objects are present in the vast majority of the displays. Implicit in so many ethnographic collections in Europe and North America is the assumption that their purpose is to represent the Other, the foreign, the exotic – that all the cultural artefacts on display are inherently different and separate. From that point it becomes dangerously easy – the road to hell being paved with good intentions – to be patronising, or worse, about the Other.

Not so at the Pitt Rivers. Displaying objects from the world over cheek by jowl not only establishes a sense of humanity’s interconnectedness, it also has a very healthy levelling effect. In the section devoted to body adornment and modification – just to give one example – one’s first reaction to learning about Maori moko tattoos or the neck-lengthening bands worn by Padaung women might be of shock, repulsion or puzzlement, but the English corset in the next case, accompanied by a very graphic rendering of the effect prolonged use has on a woman’s body, is bound to make you think gosh, what we do to our bodies in the name of beauty [well, mercifully in the case of the corset, used to do] is every bit as bizarre.

I only lasted two hours in the museum – partly because I only arrived two hours before closing time, but even had I had longer, I was too overwhelmed by the dazzling and bewildering volume and variety to have been able to take in much more. But even as I made my way back through the Natural History Museum and out, I was already hoping for another chance – and soon – to revisit this marvellous, old-fashioned yet quietly ahead of its time Museum of Everything.

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