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Exploring the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum

posted on Wednesday 7th September

Categories: Features, Oxford
Article tags: cultural, dreaming spires, history, museum, Oxford, research, school, university

Tucked away in a small galleried building at the back of the Museum of Natural History lies one of Oxford’s finest secrets. The Pitt Rivers Museum contains three floors of historical and cultural treasures from all over the world.

The museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, a renowned figure in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, donated his collection of artefacts to the University of Oxford. The museum initially served as a home for the 26,000 objects that Rivers had amassed, partly from his various travels, but mainly from auctions and from fellow members of the Anthropological Institute. The displays were added to over the years by other anthropologists and explorers to create the comprehensive collection of more than 500,000 fascinating artefacts that are permanently on show in the museum today. Visitors can marvel at a selection of masks worn by actors in Japanese Noh dramas, admire magical objects including amulets and charms, and discover the famous ‘shrunken heads’ that are on display.

In contrast with the majority of ethnographic and archaeological museums across the world, the Pitt Rivers displays its artefacts according to type rather than according to geographical area. This provides visitors with a direct contrast of similar items from all corners of the world, and reveals how the same problems were faced and resolved by different cultures throughout the ages.

As well as a wealth of artefacts such as musical instruments, jewellery, stone tools and other items that were used regularly in daily life, the Pitt Rivers also contains many photographic, film, manuscript and sound displays. The museum is still actively collecting, so objects are continually being added to the striking collection. Special exhibitions regularly take place – current exhibitions include a celebration of the centenary of the Oxford and Pennsylvania expedition to Siberia, and a display of research relating to Lewis Carroll’s ‘Dressed as a New Zealander’ print, which has recently been acquired by the museum.

The Pitt Rivers is intrinsically linked with the work of the University of Oxford – teaching and research takes place within the museum building and the museum’s curators are all lecturers at the University in cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. The museum also reaches out to the local community and regularly runs a range of public events and family activities. It is a popular destination for school visits, and also provides a programme of talks on themes relating to the collections held in the museum.

Making a visit to the Pitt Rivers means entering a world filled with man-made wonders from every era and every continent. Visitors discover through the treasure trove of historical objects how people from different cultures lived over the centuries and how common difficulties were overcome by different peoples across the globe.