How do you describe a museum ‘wow’ moment? Perhaps your first visit to a museum, your first connection to an object, happy memories of childhood museum visits or breathtaking moments enjoying the sheer physical space of a grand municipal museum. Once you have visited quite a few museums it becomes harder to regain that experience that stops you in your tracks. Now I am always analysing, looking at lighting display, interpretation, way finding, my mind whirling down a dozen different avenues. But not today.
A trip to Oxford and I asked my Twitter ‘hive mind’ where I should go. Pitt Rivers Museum became the resounding cry, and now I can see why. How to describe it? You walk up to the grand entrance of the Oxford Museum of National History, you navigate their grand high ceilings, their bright and airy main hall full of dinosaurs and there in the back wall a door to a wondrously odd world tucked out of sight.
It is akin to opening the door on a giant ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – a museum that is everything you imagine a museum to be. Full to the brim, bursting with every kind of object imaginable and many objects you have never imagined in your wildest dreams. Founded in 1884, originally with 26,000 objects that came from the collection of anthropologist General Pitt Rivers. The museum now has over 500,000 objects still displayed with Pitt Rivers’ original ethos in mind if not exactly in the same way. Cases are grouped not by geographical or cultural areas but by object type and use. So displays on ‘Animals forms in art’ and ‘Making and keeping light’ pull together different countries, times and people.
You can’t possibly take in all the objects crammed together or read tiny original labels and yet the effect, far from being frustrating, is intoxicating. I enjoyed the introduction cases explaining the collection ethos and origin and the way objects and been collected over time. It was good to see modern objects collected by a museum student, the new and old side by side, an attempt to exemplify a museum that is continually evolving and changing though at first glance it feels very much stuck in the past (but not in a bad way!)
For a museum lover it is like a museum of labels and collection care processes. QR codes abut tiny 1930s trinket charm labels with tiny spider hand writing crammed next to objects permanently scarred by the collectors hand. Museum labels far from providing a uniform brand or style vary massively from calligraphy to typed text with little appearance of thought to accessibility.
Of course this does not come without its problems, cases are dark and over full, it is not easy to see what some objects are or read labels but I completely forgive them for all of that. I like the admission that all is not easy, with the offer of magnifying glasses and torches at the front desk. It makes a visit really an adventure of discovery, you only need to crouch down to see cases crammed with even more objects underneath just waiting to be discovered.
Pitt Rivers is a museum of theatre, it is an experience, a performance, even the Hawaiian feathered cloaks have their own set of velvet curtains, perfect for a repeat curtain call. There are things that are familiar, I hungrily compare masks to those from the Horniman Museum collection that our access panel has been working on. I compare African Afo sculpture to an object I have chose for display in the new anthropology galleries at the Horniman Museum.
Equally there are things I have never seen before, seal intestine clothes from Alaska look incredibly delicate and beautiful. I love the conservation panel explaining the work that has been done to them. But the longer I am at the Pitt Rivers I cannot deny there is a creeping feeling that begins to niggle. At the start I liked the panel that explained collecting techniques behind the displays. But the more you walk round, the more you wonder at the stories behind these objects, the owners and makers. Were all given and donated so freely?
Pitt Rivers is a museum of our past, not just in objects but in collecting habits too. I have never come across a museum that speaks so powerfully of our thirst for knowledge, our need to understand, our spark of inquisitiveness but equally our desire to take and to own.
There are challenging objects on display, a case entitled ‘Treatment of dead enemies’ is powerful and disturbing, I like the inclusion of the etching from 1606 looking at western treatment of ‘enemies’ in the ‘Gun Powder Plot’. The display is not just pointing a finger at other barbaric cultures but looking to our own comparative history and heritage. I find two skulls of children, headhunter trophies, particularly difficult. I look closely at the label – “Found on a ledge outside a wooden house by the donor.”
This speaks volumes to me of the way some objects have been acquired. I am not necessarily advocating the return of objects or the removal from display, but it highlights the complexity of our museum cultural heritage. I feel there needs to be more explanation and honesty here about how we display human remains and how they can affect us. In another case a skull is kept and painted, a revered member of the family and another a local chieftain. These skulls have different meanings, their display is important and yet I feel something is missing in the terms of explanation.
For all its charms and old world museum vibe, do we not owe the visitor a little more honesty? Upstairs this feeling become more crystallised for me when I see the display of stunning Benin Bronzes. This is a really fascinating story and there is a great article on the once great city of Benin in the Guardian (link at the end). I have for a long time admired Benin Bronzes when I have seen them at the Horniman Museum, British Museum and also on display at the Tate Britain exhibition “Artist and Empire”. It is a story that evokes strong feelings in me, initially I am thrilled to see the display, the objects are so beautiful, the craftsmanship and detail are stunning. But these objects are inextricably linked to a difficult history of colonialism, destruction and death.I feel the information on display in no way brings the reality of how these objects came from Benin to be sat in an Oxford display case. The ‘1897 Punitive Expedition’ resulted in the complete destruction of the City of Benin with over 2,000 works of art seized. Many items sitting in museums across the UK have been highly contested, in March of this year a cockerel from Benin was taken off display from a Cambridge College.
I am not talking about returning objects here, that is a bigger debate than to be had in this blog, but if we are to enjoy and study objects in museums for more than their aesthetic value, there needs to be much more honesty. The Pitt Rivers is a museum of objects but also one that proudly looks to the collectors, donors and curators as part of the story of the thousands of objects they have in their collection. Many labels state who gave, found and donated each item. There is a history and a past attached to each object, but in a museum such as this, where packed display cases really highlight our urge to collect and understand, it is inextricably linked to us as collectors and owners, even if that means uncovering some uncomfortable truths.
The Pitt Rivers is an extraordinary museum, a wow museum moment I am unlikely to forget. Initial excitement has given way to something else though that will no doubt stay with me just as long. Trying to understand why and how we display objects is becoming as important to me as the objects themselves. I have found the Pitt Rivers unexpectedly thought provoking. If you really want to widen your perspective on what a museum is and should be then I have no reservations in saying this is the place to come.
To find out more about the Pitt Rivers Museum please visit the website – https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk
Pitt Rivers policy on display of human remains – https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/human.html
Court art of Benin – https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/benin
Story of cities #5: Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without a trace, Guardian, 18 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/18/story-of-cities-5-benin-city-edo-nigeria-mighty-medieval-capital-lost-without-trace
Benin Bronze row Cambridge College removes cockerel, Guardian, 8 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/08/benin-bronze-row-cambridge-college-removes-cockerel