Thursday, 22 August 2013

Review: Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford

I spent this weekend in Oxford meandering around the Pitt Rivers Museum, or, to give it it's full title, The Largest and Most Fascinating Collection of Bizarre and Random Stuff You Are Ever Likely to See. It was so awesome I thought I should tell you lot all about it.

As you may be aware, interactive displays and suchlike in museums are one of my pet hates. The Pitt Rivers contains not one of these infernal, satanic objects. What it does contain is everything from shrunken heads to collections of spears and rifles and clothing and writing implements and snuff boxes and basically, well, everything. Do not be led astray by the title 'anthropology'. It is just a huge collection of stuff, sorted in categories and crammed into elderly glass cabinets, in which 'treatment of dead enemies' stands happily next to 'musical instruments'.

There is so much stuff, some of it is stored in glass-covered drawers under the display cases. You can look in these drawers, although there are no signs suggesting you can or should. Some are locked, some are empty. Some contain odd, broken treasure, nestled in plastic sample bags, which say things like 'Cyprus, 1915', in a casual sort of way. One drawer may contain something rare and precious; the one below, a collection of cheap plastic flowers. It is less like a museum, and more like being let into the attic of someone really really fascinating.

The Pitt-Rivers Museum is based on a nineteenth century collection, and most items still have their original, handwritten tags. These leave little unfinished, tantalising stories. 'Purchased by Mrs So-and-So, Nagaland, 1934.' Who is this woman? How did she acquire it? What happened? Where did she go next? How did she end up bringing that object here?

One of the things I liked is that there is no attempt by the museum to make this labelling politically correct. Inscriptions like 'Kafir work', or 'purchased from a negro', cheerfully remain. In fact, unlike most modern museums, there are no scripts telling you what you should think about, at all. Nothing queries racism, or colonialism, or superstition, or anything else whatsoever.

Ironically, the net result is that it makes you think about these things a great deal. The throwing together of objects from different continents and ages makes it very apparent how similar human societies are, in so many ways. First, that we are equal in unappealing weirdness: the shoes of the bound feet of Chinese women are displayed next to a modern breast implant. Both were producing unprovoked 'ew' sounds from passing visitors. Second, that we are equal in skill, since the sophistication of the objects on display immediately show how many civilisations destroyed by the arrival of the 'white man' were quite its equal in culture. The objects speak for themselves, in a way that a little lecturing explanation on the wall never could.

Another result of the lack of the 'interpretation' was that you could see adults explaining things to children, or telling little stories, in a way that they never would in the presence of a press-button explanation. As I left, at closing time Sunday, a small girl aged about 5, was throwing a tantrum at being evicted. I have honestly never seen any child in a museum - or indeed anywhere - throw a tantrum at being pulled away from a video display.

I simply cannot understand why museums, who often own vast collections of fascinating objects, keep quantities of them locked away while offering space to facile and patronising explanations. I was taught, when learning history, that primary sources were everything, but apparently, this lesson has been cast aside in the belief that most of us are too stupid to cope. This is quite mad: an object created in 1799 forever holds something of 1799, but an explanation put up in 2012 reeks of 2012, as soon as 2013.

I absolutely adore Pitt-Rivers and its cabinets of curiosities, long may it reign.

PS: It's free.

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