Oxford’s Cabinets of Curiosities: Pitt Rivers

February 9, 2017

Between my business trip to Paris and my foray into Copenhagen’s gastronomic scene, I spent 26 hours in Oxford to meet up with a Cardiff-based friend. Besides spending a morning catching up at Vaults and Garden and roaming around a few of Oxford’s 38 colleges, I spent most of my time at two excellent museums — the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean. An entire day passed by in the blink of an eye.

Both museums began as cabinets of curiosities; Pitt Rivers was founded in 1884 when Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers donated to Oxford University his 26,000-item collection, amassed mostly through purchases from auctions and dealers. His interest began in firearms and armory but later expanded to all forms of archaeological and ethnographic objects across the British Empire. The collection now includes 500,000 items, many of which were donation by late 19th century/early 20th century anthropologists and explorers.

Pitt Rivers is a somewhat strange museum. To start it doesn’t even have its own entrance — visitor has to traverse the entire Oxford University Museum of Natural History to reach Pitt Rivers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as the former’s impressive Dinosaur Gallery can certainly keep guests entertained along the way.

Another oddity is how the collection is displayed. The founder, living during the height of European exceptionalism, believed in cultural evolution. He grouped his artifacts by what he called “typological series”, a set of objects that are of the same type, like weapons, vessels, or musical instrument arranged in a particular order to illustrate his views on the evolution of design and technology, usually under the assumption that indigenous designs were a primitive form to their European counterparts. This arrangement by type has become the distinguished feature of Pitt Rivers. The museum has three floors, majority of the entire collection are displayed on the ground floor inside glass cases. Most are very crowded and function merely as storage.


Shrunken heads

It is absolutely overwhelming trying to digest the sheer volume of artifacts on display. Begin by heading to the left of the entrance and read about the history of the museum, then take a quick look at Maria Czaplicka’s “My year in Siberia” on the left to get a taste of the harsh conditions of some of the early expeditions.

Move back towards the middle and you will come across the Methods of firemaking section. Fire drills were still used by tribes in India and Kenya in the early 20th century. Amazingly these objects from thousands of miles apart look almost identical because the principle behind starting fire by drilling is the same.

Now come some of the clearest proof of human brutality — the cabinets of the Treatment of dead enemies. After browsing through the Asian pottery section, I wandered to the adjacent cabinet, and then, without any hint of what’s about to come, several neatly aligned disfigured human heads were staring directly at me. Ten are on display; a mixture of shrunken heads of human, sloth and red howler monkey. It required some effort to hold down my gastric acid.

From the Upper Amazon region of South America between Peru and Ecuador, these relics on display are belonged to the Shuar and Achuar peoples, distinct tribes with similar cultures. Practiced until the 1960s, the men from these tribes took enemy heads to capture souls and harness their power for their own people, and later after contact with Europeans the shrunken heads were often traded as exotic trophies for guns and metal goods.

Keeping in mind of cultural sensitivity, the instructions behind how these shrunken heads were made still read like a horror novel. “First the skin was removed from the skull, followed by discarding the skull and brain. The skin was boiled briefly and then dried with hot pebbles and sand. The features were preserved by shaping the skin with hot pebbles as the skin dried. The eyes and mouth were closed with cotton string, and the face blackened with vegetable dye. The head was then strung on a cord so it could be worn at a ritual feast by the man who had taken it.”

Flask containing a witch

Further upper right is the Magic section with amulets and charms from across the world. I am most fascinated by the salmon charm used by the Haida people to attract a bountiful catch during times of scarcity. Also caught my eyes was a glass flask reputed to contain a witch. Obtained from an old lady in East Sussex in 1915, the bottle has yet been opened to test the claim.

Visiting Pitt Rivers inevitably results in information overload. Much of what I saw after the Magic section became a blur. The museum does little to highlight its exhibition; the only description are tiny written notes all over the place, and the mixing of artifacts from different eras and geography only cause confusion. That said, Pitt Rivers will reward those who are willing to dig deep into the pile with some of the strangest and unique relics of human history anywhere.


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