Sewing Diaries: Making a Manteau de Lit

I tend to agonise over decisions. It is rare for me that a piece of kit goes from the planning stage to finished product in the space of two days. Rare and rather exciting. But on this occasion I was working to a deadline. This weekend I will be at Carlisle Castle dressed as a Jacobite, and while I have been putting together eighteenth century kit for some time there are still a few pieces missing. So last Friday I decided to make a manteau de lit, or bedgown.

A quick trip to Leeds market yielded some nice material, and a quick internet search led me to a simple pattern published in 1769 by F.A. Garsault, in his Description des Arts et Metier.


Now I know that 1769 is a little after the dateline for the event I’m going to this weekend, but the bedgown was a common item of clothing for women of all classes through most of the eighteenth century. It can be made from wool or linen depending on how warm you want it to be. I opted for wool with a linen lining. Wealthy ladies might wear a bedgown made of silk after getting out of bed in the morning and before appearing in public. For working women the bedgown was often worn all day over jumps or stays, frequently with an apron over the top. It was a practical and comfortable garment, well suited to carrying out manual work.

You will need at least 2 metres of material each for the outer and the lining. You may want more depending on your height or if you want a slightly longer garment. The length can be anywhere from below the knee to mid thigh. My general rule of thumb for sewing reenactment clothing is that inside seams may be done by machine if necessary, while any visible stitching such as hemming must be done by hand.

I should also note that I left out the back pleat and the sleeve gathering shown in Garsault’s drawing. There are examples of bedgowns with and without these features and time was somewhat limited. Other examples omit the side pleats and are instead cut with a sloping side.


  1. Fold your material in half across the width and trace the pattern to a suitable size. Cut out the pattern and use it to trace the same shape onto your lining material. Cut out the lining.
  2. Cut along the fold line which joins front to back at the collar, then cut the front of both outer and lining in half from top to bottom along the line shown.
  3. Round out the front of the collar by cutting away the front corners.
  4. Sew the front to the back along the side of the collar, top and bottom of the sleeve, down the side, and down the side of the skirt. Leave the short section labled a in Fig. 10 unsewn. Repeat for the lining. Press your seams flat with a hot iron.
  5. The most time-consuming bit is pleating the sides. You will need to iron in the pleats before you sew them. I opened out the unsewn seam to lie flat against the side of the jacket, and then folded each side of my pleat back in to the centre along the side seam to make a sort of double pleat. Once you have ironed your pleats, sew them in. Repeat for the lining.2016-06-22 11.27.26
  6. Making sure to place good side to good side, sew the outer to the lining along the bottom of the jacket and then up each side of the centre opening. Leave an opening along the back of the collar to turn your garment the right way out.
  7. Once the jacket is the right way out and the sleeves of the lining have been fitted into the sleeves of the outer, close up the opening in the collar by hand. Then sew outer to lining along the sleeve cuffs, also by hand.
  8. Press all your seams flat. A ribbon tie can be added as a closure, or the bedgown can be closed using pins. Generally the bedgown was worn with the sides overlapping, so I have opted for the latter. The sleeves should be short enough to work in, and can be rolled up to below the elbow.

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The finished bedgown. Overall I am happy with how it turned out. It is certainly comfortable to wear, and to have a project finished in two evenings of work is always satisfying. If I were to make another, I would leave myself more material for the collar. The collar on this one wound up very small and hard to turn over. That said, I would definitely recommend this pattern to anyone planning a manteau de lit of their own. It is easy to follow, easy to adapt, and I am pleased with the result.

Climbing Ben Nevis

There are few things I love to do more than I love hiking up mountains. They don’t really have to be mountains. A large hill will do. But there is something about reaching the summit that just makes me feel completely free. Maybe I’m just tired and light-headed, but while I am suspended up there above the world I imagine I can go anywhere.

It should be noted that this is not something I do very often, nor is it a pursuit in which I have any expertise. However when I recently visited Fort William in Scotland, I could not resist the opportunity to walk up the highest peak in Britain.

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The view from the campsite in Glen Nevis the night before the ascent was breathtaking, although the summit itself was not visible. From this vantage point the mountain did not appear quite as forbidding as described in the pamphlet I had picked up from a walking store in town. The glow of the evening sunshine and the first wisps of cloud spilling down the hillside gave it an almost ethereal appearance.

I set off early the next morning while frost still coated the grass and the outside of my tent. The walk would take four hours up, and another two or three to get back down. For the first half hour or so my path fell in the shadow of the mountain. The sun had not yet climbed high enough to reach the lower slopes.

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Eventually the sun made an appearance as I continued upwards. This first section of the trail was was littered with bags of rock and grit for maintenance after the winter, and I stopped for a quick chat with the crew carrying out the work as they finished their morning cup of tea.

After a little over an hour, I reached a wide plateau. The even ground provided a much appreciated rest for my legs. More clouds were beginning to gather, and I would soon be walking through them.

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The path grew steeper again, and after emerging from the cloud it forded a small stream which fell away into the empty space below me. Looking out across the valley, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were just visible above the cloud bank.

From this point the trail was increasingly covered in snow left from the winter, and the going became much more difficult. I had been warned that at the top the snow would be waist deep, although it was packed so densely even here that my feet only occasionally broke through.

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After another hour’s walk, maybe a little more, I reached a point where the path was no longer discernible. The snowfield spread out before me and there seemed to be one high point ahead of me and another off to my left. It was difficult to say which was higher, and I had no idea that the actual summit was still completely hidden from view.

Luck and an educated guess led me to the right-hand path, and after about half an hour I rounded the side of a small rise and I could finally see just how far I still had to go. The last section of the trail was marked with a line of cairns which thrust through the snow like signal beacons.

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When I reached the summit, I could have spent hours there. The sky was the most beautiful blue and the sunshine was dazzling. The word that kept running through my mind was ‘glorious.’ I ate my lunch seated on the remains of the 1883 meteorological observatory, trying to soak in the view, to absorb it into myself and imprint it on the backs of my eyelids.

I never wanted to leave.

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Of course, eventually I had to. On the way back down I could feel how tired my legs were. The muscles were numb and shaky, but gravity did its work and at times I almost broke into a jog.

Passing back beneath the layer of cloud I entered a different, much greyer world. Retracing my steps past the same places I had seen that morning felt oddly anticlimactic, but my memories of snow and sunshine and mountain peaks would keep me going for days.

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The only question now is: where do I go next?

The Return of Flying Scotsman

There was a time not so long ago when the most frequent question you got asked working at the National Railway Museum was, ‘Where is Flying Scotsman?’ This probably even came in ahead of ‘Where are the toilets?’ And of course ‘Where is Thomas?’

The restoration project for this iconic locomotive has taken ten years, cost over £4 million, and I am personally very excited that the answer to the ubiquitous question is once again that Flying Scotsman is working and here in the museum. It isn’t here for long of course. It it about to go up to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and will be touring around the country over the next couple of years. But during the last few days since the inaugural run on February 25th, I have had the opportunity to spend some time with this celebrated piece of railway heritage and I am honestly a little surprised by the degree of my own excitement.

When I started work at the museum, over two years ago, I knew nothing about trains beyond having traveled on them. I still wouldn’t call myself a railway enthusiast. But I have developed an appreciation for steam locomotives in particular, both as an important part of our heritage and as an engineering marvel.

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Flying Scotsman has been lauded by some as the most famous steam locomotive in the world. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley for the LNER and built in 1923, it was the first locomotive to be recorded reaching 100 mph. It took its name from the 10.00 AM Flying Scotsman rail service from London to Edinburgh and was also the first locomotive to run a nonstop service along that route. The locomotive’s initial rise to fame was launched by its appearance at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, but each of these achievements added to the mythos.

The public interest and the emotional response that Flying Scotsman has generated around the country (and around the world) has been overwhelming. While part of the restoration was paid for by grants from National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, a large portion of the cost was donated by members of the public. Naturally there has been some debate over the project, primarily regarding the decision to restore Flying Scotsman in its British Rail livery rather than LNER apple green.

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However, there are certain features of the locomotive as it exists today which date to its later life in mainline service rather than its early days as LNER No. 1472, and then 4472. The smoke deflectors and the double chimney are both in keeping with its restoration in British Rail green.

There is another debate of course, one which would inevitably surround any project with such a price tag. Among railway enthusiasts the debate is over which locomotive should have been restored, with some arguing that there were other candidates in better initial condition. But I have had at least one person suggest to me that such a sum of money should not have been spent on restoring a locomotive at all.

My answer to both of these arguments is to point to the public support for the restoration. If we say that people vote with their wallets, then the ballots are in and we have a winner. For my part, I cannot see money spent on heritage as anything less than a crucial investment in our future. I only wish that more projects received this level of funding and support.

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Jorvik Viking Festival

Every year since I moved to York I have taken part in the Jorvik Viking Festival. Normally I don’t get a chance to take any photos of the event, being somewhat preoccupied with other things. Like fighting a horde of Vikings. But this year I managed to capture a few snapshots. (The photo above from last year’s festival is not mine, but you can see me marching along in the middle ground.)

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The markets are always one the most exciting parts of the festival. I didn’t do a great deal of shopping this year, but I got one or two nice things.

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The Merchant Adventurer’s hall makes a lovely setting for half of the market stalls. I normally spend most of the Friday shopping and looking around before the big battle on Saturday.

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This year there was a display set up on Parliament street showcasing different aspects of Viking life, including a small boat.

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On Saturday afternoon the armies form up outside the Minster before marching to the Eye of York by Clifford’s Tower for a series of three practice skirmishes. This year the festival commemorated the Battle of Assandun in 1016, and here the English army prepares to march under Edmund Ironside.

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Meanwhile the Viking army prepares to follow King Cnut into battle. I portrayed one of Cnut’s honour guard of Jomsvikings led by Thorkell the Tall.

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For reasons which I hope are obvious, I didn’t get any photos of the battle itself. But I did sneak a quick and slightly blurry shot of the Viking army about to march on for the big evening battle. As always, it was great fun and I look forward to next year.

Travelogue: The Battle of Marathon

Last autumn I spent two weeks traveling across Europe to attend an international gathering of reenactors at Marathon, in Greece. This is a trip which had been in the works for over a year, and I got to see and experience some incredible things. The objective was a commemoration of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, to be held on the site of the battle and attended by reenactment groups from all around the world.

Here is my odyssey.

I set off from my home in York in late October, catching the Eurotunnel to Calais, and subsequently getting lost in the French countryside as the evening light faded. The plan had been to save money by camping on the way. Unfortunately every single campsite in Europe was already closed for the winter.

The almost miraculous appearance of a cheap hotel saved the day, and things only got better from there. The second day began before dawn in a thick, cold fog. But the sun finally burned through and the approach to Mont Blanc afforded some breathtaking views.

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And some unsettling ones. I cannot recommend the viaducts in this part of the world to anyone with acrophobia.

On the other side of the tunnel I was into Italy, my very first visit to the country. This time I had planned ahead and made a last minute booking via the magic of phone internet. I managed to find a beautiful (yet very reasonably priced) apartment run by a lovely Italian lady in the town of Reggio Nell’Emilia. She didn’t speak a word of English. I do not speak a word of Italian. Yet we managed to communicate in some mix of the two. It was one of those perfect travel moments that can never happen until you take a step outside your comfort zone.

The next day I continued down the eastern coast of Italy to catch a ferry from Ancona, stopping briefly in Rimini to see the sights. The sight that will stay with me most is one I never expected, although it was actually the scent of incense that struck me first. Then I rounded the corner from a side street into the path of this procession.

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I have never been religious but I do enjoy the trappings and the rituals of religion, and this was so completely different from anything I had experienced in the cold, Anglican world where I live. This was the moment I really felt I came face to face with the heritage of Italy.

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The ferry left Ancona by moonlight, bound for Patras, and the next morning I awoke in a different world. The sea was blue, the sun was warm, and something in the air smelled just as I remembered from my last visit to Greece the summer after high school. That last part might have been psychosomatic.

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The ferry charted a course past the island of Ithaca, not only the famous destination of the unluckiest man in Greek epic poetry, but also the namesake of my own childhood hometown.

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I took twelve photos of it. Twelve. They all look the same.

Arriving in Patras after twenty-three hours at sea, I continued straight on to Athens in the dark. The roads were just as mad as I remembered them too. Finally the traffic slowed a little, and coming over the crest of a hill I saw the city spread out beneath me with the Acropolis lit up at its centre. The city itself was the same yet different. It was more run down. Graffiti covered almost every building. Walking through the streets that first night it sometimes felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a dystopian film from the 1980s. Even so, Athens is still one of my favourite cities.

I had a full day to be a tourist before continuing on to Marathon, and I visited all the usual places with no small sense of nostalgia.


I also had great fun wandering around the markets, of which there were a wonderful variety. Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, pastries, nuts and spices, antiques, hardware, and all manner of souvenirs vying for attention. I must have eaten my weight in baklava.


The next day there was a short drive to Marathon, many introductions, and a campsite to set up. The groups putting on the event came from Greece, Italy, France, Romania, Bulgaria, England, Canada, and the United States. I had the chance to meet and work with some excellent reenactors and truly lovely people, and I hope to see them all again. The sense of camaraderie around the campfires in the evening will probably stay with me as much as anything else.


On the Thursday and Friday we put on educational displays and activities for groups of schoolchildren, with a certain amount of help from a team of translators. On Saturday the campsite was open to the public, and we put on a show describing some of the tactics and the outcome of the Battle of Marathon. I was portraying a Scythian in the Persian cavalry.


You may notice the slightly incongruous modern bridles on both horses. Unfortunately neither horse had seen anything like a Greek hoplite before, or a shield, or a spear, or a bow, or historical tack. In fact the black horse I am riding in this picture had received very little training of any sort. We were incredibly lucky to have horses available for the event at all, and I enjoyed spending some time training and working with them. But with very little time available, when it came to the battle, the cavalry elected to run away.


In the brave and noble tradition of Sir Robin.

In addition to the public displays we carried out experiments on the movement of a phalanx, and the pressure that could be exerted in the push between two armies. On our final evening we met with a historian, Fotis Karyanos, who very kindly offered to take us on a tour up to the site of the Greek encampment before the battle.


Sadly my stay in Marathon had to be cut short by a day due to a ferry strike. On the other hand, that meant an extra day to see Italy. After arriving back in Ancona, I spent the night in Ravenna where I had one of the most delicious takeaway pizzas I have ever tasted. The next stop was Verona. I was not enthused by the prospect due to my inveterate loathing of Romeo and Juliet. However, I can now say that it was absolutely 100% worth it.


There are plenty of good reasons to visit Verona, but if you go for no other reason, you should go to see the Roman Arena.


Walking from the tall, echoing internal chambers out onto the sand it is not hard to imagine the roar of a crowd eager for blood.

After Verona it was time to head back through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was almost two weeks since I had left York, and even on the Italian side of the Alps it was starting to feel very much like late autumn.

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Back in France I visited the Thiepval Memorial and drove along the front line of the Somme before spending a rainy night in Calais. Finally on the fifteenth day I arrived back in York, tired and somewhat poorer than when I left, with a bag full of laundry and a phone full of pictures.

Who needs books?

A new book arrived for me in the post today, and this is an occurrence about which I am unreasonably excited. Every afternoon for the past few days I have made my way home from work and opened the front door with a sense of hopeful anticipation, looking around for a parcel I knew would be there soon. (Every afternoon except Sunday, of course.)


. . . image belongs to Warner Bros. no copyright infringement intended . . .

Now this book is a book of which I already own a digital copy. So why did I feel compelled to buy it in good old-fashioned paperback? I have no business buying new books. The shelving situation in my current shared house is totally inadequate to support my habit. Piles of books sit on top of each neat row, filling every available space up to the ceiling. And that doesn’t even account for the pile of books currently lurking on my nightstand waiting to be read.

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I don’t even get through books that quickly, partly because I have around five on the go at any given moment, and partly because my life leaves little time to read for fun. So why do I keep buying books?

I read an interesting discussion recently about the ways in which traditional book snobbery at the expense of the e-reader discriminates against the poor, the young, and anyone likely to have to move house suddenly or often. And I can see the sense in that. As for myself however, I cannot afford the financial outlay for an e-reader, but I can afford a free library card and the occasional new book.*

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a book snob. Although I do think that there are some books that are better read in hard copy. Anything where you have to flip back and forth, for starters. Ultimately I think it comes down to personal preference. Digital books are perfect for some people. They are portable and practical and an excellent invention. Personally I prefer to own books in print. It isn’t just how I prefer to read, or a refusal to spend in order to save. Books are one of my luxuries. I enjoy reading books, and looking at books, and surrounding myself with books. (Sometimes quite literally. When I was still at university I used to accumulate piles of books for my latest essay all round the edges of my bed, leaving a small space in the middle for me to sleep.) Books are art.


Obviously I don’t own anything as beautiful as this miniature fourteenth century Book of Hours housed at The Cloisters museum in New York City, but you get my point.

Of course they are not just objets d’art. Books are far more important that that. The knowledge they contain is truly incredible, and those of us who have access to that knowledge have been given a source of power denied to even the upper echelons of society for most of history. When that Book of Hours was written (painstakingly by hand), very few people would have known how to read. Even those who could read would have had to content themselves with the Bible, and maybe one or two other volumes if they were lucky. By contrast, the information and the diversions available to us today are seemingly boundless.

I would contend that we all need books. And it doesn’t really matter whether they are digital or print. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think the paper version will be disappearing any time soon.

*For those of you who noticed the discrepancy, the digital copy of the book in question is just stored on my computer. It is perfectly readable in that form, but not altogether convenient.

Cities of the Future

A couple of weeks ago I traveled down to Oxford to give a presentation on gladiators at Cheney School as part of the Iris Project’s ‘Festival of Lost Cities.’ The Iris Project is an educational charity which works to bring ancient history and the Classics into lower income schools. We have worked with them in the past, putting on Greek and Roman cavalry shows the last two summers. The Festival of Lost Cities involved a variety of displays and activities for the kids to get involved in across several classrooms each named after an important city in the ancient world.

At the end of the day there was a talk by Bettany Hughes which dealt primarily with the origins, function, and the idea of ‘the city.’

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I met Bettany Hughes! Just had to say that.

She described the earliest sites which could be called cities as places where people congregated to share ideas and information. These are places which predate the agricultural revolution and all of the traditional narratives about food surplus and specialisation of labour. They were not permanently inhabited, but the complex structures did periodically host large gatherings of people. The primary example she gave was a site called Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey, but her description of the ways in which the site was used also reminded me a little bit of the recent research done on the landscape around Stonehenge.


Göbekli Tepe. Image taken from wikipedia.

Later in the talk she was asked what the cities of the future might look like, and it suddenly occurred to me that they are already here. If we look at the city as a place where people gather to share information and ideas, then will the cities of the future need to exist as physical entities at all? We have created virtual cities that rival the complexity of any metropolis built from steel and concrete.

Now I’m not suggesting that we all go off and herd goats on deserted mountain. There are still practical matters to consider. But actually in practical terms, a physical city is something of a liability. It cannot sustain itself, so it requires enormous quantities of resources to be drawn from its hinterland. On the other hand, if everyone moved out we would soon face a shortage of deserted mountains.

We talk about ‘online communities’ all the time. It just never occurred to me to imagine what we have created on the internet as ‘cities’ in that way before. Now I can’t get the idea out of my head. And if that isn’t a futuristic concept of what a city could be then I don’t know what is.

Musings on Museums: the Pitt Rivers

I think it is appropriate for my first post that I talk a little bit about the image which I have chosen to head up this blog. Not the picture of me. That is pretty straightforward. I’m in a museum, looking at a piece of Roman pottery. If memory serves, it is the face pot representing Julia Domna which is on display in the Yorkshire Museum.

No, I mean the other picture. With the dinosaur skeleton. Now I can’t guarantee that I will never change my blog design. So if you are reading this several years in the future and wondering what I am talking about, here is the picture in question:

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I am not a palaeontologist by trade, nor a student of natural history, nor of any period of prehistory. On the other hand, I have always had a certain fascination with those topics. In fact I know very few people who don’t experience some sense of childlike awe when confronted with the earthly remains of the “terrible lizards.” This despite knowing perfectly well that they were actually covered with feathers and may not have looked quite as dignified as they do in that film about the mathematician who was always (unfortunately) right. That film rested on the premise that people (lots of people) would pay good money to see dinosaurs, both in the narrative and in the cinema. The filmmakers were right as well.

So yes I love dinosaurs. But as I said, they are not my area of expertise. However, I do know something about museums. I have worked in a few, paid and unpaid, and spent uncountable hours in many many many more. I took the above photograph in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those rare moments when the panorama feature on your phone doesn’t just produce a blurry mess but gives you a sense of the space you are in.

And the Pitt Rivers was certainly an incredible space. The cast iron arches supporting the glass roof take the forms of myriad species of flora. Each of the stone pillars that cloister the hall is cut from a different variety of rock, and each one labeled. It is a masterpiece of Victorian intellectualist, curatorialist architecture. And if the carved figures dotted around the edges of the room like devotional idols are a little bit (or very) white and male, well they still represent people who made some very interesting contributions.

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Statue of John Hunter, Scottish surgeon, early proponent of the scientific method in the medical profession, teacher to Edward Jenner. Conducted pioneering (if not altogether successful) experiments in tooth transplantation, artificial insemination, resuscitation, and cryogenics.

All in all it is a beautiful space, an inspiring space. Or at least this first hall is. When you pass through the natural history display and into what might be considered the main body of the museum, it is a different story. The second hall is dark, and full of things, up to the ceiling. It is a truly fascinating collection of artefacts.

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But . . .

There is something I can’t quite express. And for the record, I am not the right person to express it. These are artefacts taken from a great variety of cultures from all around the globe, and ‘taken’ is the operative word. The whole place is pervaded with a sour, sordid sense of colonialism. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have a chance to see everything there. I love wandering around dimly lit rooms peering into a dusty maze of glass cases of arcana. But these are not arcane objects. They are part of someone’s culture, and the way they are displayed does not feel respectful.* (Nowhere is that feeling more pronounced than when perusing the display of shrunken heads.)

This is very definitely the dark side of the Victorian splendour on show in the first hall: voyeuristic, exoticising, paternalistic, and rife with self-congratulatory Social Darwinism. So how are we to engage with this museum in the twenty-first century? Well one perfectly valid response would be to not engage with it at all, or to demand repatriation and comprehensive change. I am aware that my own white privilege may be the only reason I was able to take a different approach. So what follows is my personal experience and nothing more.

For me the Pitt Rivers was a museum of museums. It is a brilliant display of how things used to be, how we used to see, and think about, and present archaeology in the past. The artefacts are arranged in groups by function in order to show their ‘evolution,’ an idea that was highly influential in the early days of the archaeological profession. And there is still a hint of the even older cabinet of curiosities trend. This is not how anyone would design a museum today. But it might occasionally be a good thing for us to be reminded of the roots of our profession, together with all their unsavoury connotations.

*Nothing in this post is intended as a criticism of the people who currently run or work at the Pitt Rivers Museum. In fact, they have added some interesting commentary in various places which invites the visitor to think about the ways in which we display and view museum objects. The lack of respect I am talking about is tied to the nineteenth century origins of the collection and the museum.