OXFORD, UK — During a recent visit to London, I took a day trip to Oxford for the sole purpose of seeing one museum: the Pitt Rivers Museum. I’d heard that viewing the collection was like entering a 19th-century Wunderkammer, and that it had an impressive collection of shrunken heads.
The museum, curiously, does not have its own entrance, but is located inside Oxford’s Natural History Museum via an inconspicuous archway in a side gallery that leads down a set of stairs. It’s possible to browse for hours within the main museum before noticing this portal to the Pitt Rivers.
The museum is named after General Pitt-Rivers, as his collection was what began the museum, although most of what is on display today came from other sources. Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) first developed an eye for collecting when he began observing the evolution of and adaptations made to improve the firing of bullets. Traveling to Europe for his military career, he became interested in antiquities and artifacts from other cultures, joining the Geographical Society and the Ethnological and Anthropological Societies. Eventually, his collection swelled to the point that he had to seek an institution to house it.
Pitt-Rivers bequeathed his founding collection of around 30,000 items to Oxford University in 1884, which was much expanded upon by donations from anthropologists, missionaries, museums, and other sources, to eventually include about 600,000 things. His original gift was conditional, insisting that the artifacts remain grouped by function rather than the culture or time period from which they came. It was also his preference to collect everyday objects used by ordinary people rather than objects of art. In the 1890s, an information panel at the entrance stated: “The Specimens, ETHNOLOGICAL and PREHISTORIC, are arranged with a view to demonstrate, either actually or hypothetically, the development and continuity of the material arts from the simpler to more complex forms … To aid in the solution of the problem whether MAN has arisen from a condition resembling the brutes, or fallen from a high state of perfection.”
Unlike most other museums I’ve wandered, which are bright, airy, perfect for groups of schoolchildren, and designed with a consistent, corporate care, the dim and narrow aisles of the Pitt Rivers Museum are maze-like, with display cases very close together. Additional cases have been installed above others, some have drawers under them, and large items, like boats, hang from the ceiling. The displays are not in any discernible order or organized in a particular fashion, and small objects are housed in cases of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Many of the item descriptions were handwritten on tiny labels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On many of them, the writing is so small as to be illegible, and the item remains mysterious. Thomas Penniman, Pitt Rivers Museum curator of mid-20th century objects, said of the black Victorian case-surrounds in his report of 1950–1, “the mass of accumulated blackness and overcrowding gives an impression of a procession of hearses loaded with junk, no matter how good the objects may be.”
There is no beginning or end to how you’re supposed to view the collection; it’s meant to be wandered randomly. The disorienting space is kept dark on purpose for conservation reasons, but flashlights are available if desired. I moved slowly past cases labeled “Knuckledusters and Wrist Knives,” “Food Processing,” “Skates and Snowshoes,” “Ornaments Made From Teeth,” “Smoking and Stimulants,” “Forms Suggested by Natural Shapes,” “Magic, Witchcraft, and Divination,” and “Treatment of Dead Enemies,” where I finally found the shrunken heads, some wearing iridescent beetle wings as hair. The heads come from the Upper Amazon, where the Shuar and Achuar peoples used to shrink the heads of their enemies (the practice stopped in the 1960s). The same case also contains scalp trophies, beheading knives, and other headhunting accoutrement from all over the world, and an illustration of Guy Fawkes’s head on a pike in London in 1605.
There is a collection of trepanation tools, shoes made for bound feet, makeup compacts, and perfume bottles. One tiny amulet in the collection is made from a coin, a piece of skin from a 19th-century executed murderer named Campi, and some of the rope he was hung with. It was meant to bring good luck and health to the policeman who carried it. One of my favorite cases was the one devoted to “Sympathetic Magic.” Inside I viewed, after deciphering the more-than-100-year-old handwritten labels, a “thief’s juju nut, to render him invisible day or night,” an English charm to remove warts using a “large black slug,” and “an object, said to be a toad, stuck with thorns for witchcraft purposes, found with the heart here exhibited.”
The provenance of the displayed objects is sometimes questionable; in fact, the museum is continually updating information on its objects. But visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum does afford the opportunity to experience the world through one Victorian gentleman’s eyes — to wander a time capsule of weird and wonderful objects and see the connections he found among them. The General’s dictate to display the collection by form and function rather than culture or geography renders objects dating from prehistoric through modern times more similar than different, and more extraordinary than ordinary. This unique manner of display lends the whole collection — old-fashioned, hearse-like display cases, handwritten description labels, and all — the feeling of being more like the world’s largest curiosity shop, where you can immerse yourself in browsing for hours, where time passes almost unnoticed before you surface for a breath.
The Pitt Rivers Museum (South Parks Road, Oxford) is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–4:30pm, and Monday, 12–4:30pm.