Friday, 12 January 2007

Places to See No. 1: The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.


Picture from Salisbury Museum


The Pitt Rivers Museum is very special. You won't find the wide avenues, clean lighting, and spacious displays of your usual museum experience here. Gone is the typical word-processed signage, replaced by beautifully hand written notes in black ink, on tiny yellowing tags. And whereas artefacts are usually displayed according to geographical, or cultural areas, here things are arranged and displayed according to what they are – typographically - so you'll find similar objects clustered together regardless of when they were made, or where they came from.

General Augustus Pitt Rivers founded his museum in 1884 when his house became too small for the 18,000 objects he'd collected on his travels around the world. These objects range from a tiny glass bottle containing a foetus, to a full sized totem pole from Canada, and because of their typographical arrangement, they tell the fascinating story of how objects like pens, combs, or sewing needles have been developed, designed and improved, not only over time, but by different cultures as each found different methods of overcoming common problems and flaws.

The museum is contained within one large room, and although an extension was built recently, it interconnects with the original Victorian display to retain its magical atmosphere. The cabinets are packed to bursting point, and sit close together with additional objects placed on the top of them, hanging on the wall, or from the ceiling, giving the impression that the passages between them are even narrower than they are. And it is a place of discovery. Even when you know what you're looking for, you still have to find it among an ever-growing collection of oddities and wonders. We once spent 2 hours looking for the bottle with the witch in it, and even then had to ask an attendant who was new and struggled to remember where it was himself! There are drawers upon drawers beneath the black cabinets, and lining the walls – drawers full of amazing little objects; talismans and charms, jewellery and hair clips, or even miniature Voodoo dolls.

So if you should find yourself in Oxford, as I did, on rainy day with some time spare, you could do a lot worse than to explore the array of objects that Pitt Rivers collected all those years ago. You'll find it tucked away at the back of the Oxford University Museum Natural History on Parks Road, and it's open from 12 till 4.30pm Monday to Saturday, and 2 till 4.30pm on Sundays. It's free to get in, and even if you visited every day for a year, I doubt you'd manage to see everything!



Picture from Pringles Richards Sharrat Architects

1 comment:

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