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.

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