Instantly I regretted leaving it so long to visit the Museum. The entrance through the Natural history Museum was impressive and reminiscent of a miniature version of the Natural History Museum in London, with suspended skeletons gracefully floating along against a backdrop of beautiful Victorian Architecture.
Instantly the atmosphere changed as you pass the threshold from the Natural History Museum to Pitt Rivers. The lofty glass roof was replaced with wood and a deep darkness and gloomy mood descended, like wandering into an ancient cave no one had ventured into for years, with just a few lights twinkling like stars to welcome you.
The atmosphere of Pitt Rivers eerily echoed it's many exhibits, adding to the strange sense of being in unknown territory. The exhibits on display are grouped according to their use; the first floor consisting of 'Magic, Masks and Music' the second 'Tattoos, Tools and Toys' and the third 'Shields, Spears and Samurai', and honestly, anything in between. At first the vastness of objects and the space before you is quite overwhelming, but as the museums map advises, your main guide through the maze of cabinets and artifacts is your own curiosity, so it was no surprise I first found myself staring and dozens of Noh masks (as someone who studied Japanese Culture and Arts for many years) and then immediately all sorts of mysterious Witchcraft artifacts ...
The wealth of items on display relating to Witchcraft was truly staggering. Strange bottles with labels of spells and potions, amulets for a whole wealth of uses, Animal skulls, Teeth, pieces of jaw bone, effigies, ex voto, strange charms, hearts with nails hammered into them, alien artifacts from Africa which echo of a different culture. Some of the items were familiar, from British Folklore and ancient culture, like a Witches Ladder hanging ethereally, and the widespread image of the Evil Eye adorning amulets from many cultures, or bottles, jars and skulls, all of which are familiar, recognisable objects, even if the intent and purpose behind them is unknown. Yet many items were entirely alien. Strange pieces of wood or straw doing unknown things, feathers forming headdresses for some unknown ritual, shells and beads intricately decorating some unidentifiable item. There is a real sense of mystery to many of the artifacts on display, which is so tantalizing, and hints at how little we really know our world or understand its deepest, best kept secrets.
Another area I found myself pulled towards within the sea of model boats and strange looking instruments were the cabinets labelled 'Treatment of the Dead' and 'Treatment of Dead Enemies'. Inside these is a treasure trove of bizarre and often gruesome death rituals. Some such as mummification and shrunken heads most people will be familiar with, but most strayed into that mysterious unknown once more, skulls with bound eyes, feathers, graphic mutilation and violence, painted, burned, adorned with strange objects such as wood or bone and even gem stones. These incredible remains reflect customs and traditions which are so different to those practiced by most today its almost like a glimpse into a secret history. The lives and cultures of the tribes who created these artifacts is almost unimaginable, and for the most part, lost forever to modernization, yet these artifacts give a brief and fleeting insight into a lost world.
During my short time at the museum (how much can you soak up in 2 and a half hours in a building of 22,000 items?) I repeatedly wondered about the people who created these incredible objects. Their tribe, their life, the reason for the items creation, the place these objects had in their daily life, and most importantly; is their way of life lost forever? Does their tribe or culture still exist? Does anybody living know any of their secrets anymore? The wonders on display are countless, and say so much about our past, but also about human nature. With the many textiles, adornments, and physical modifications expressing the deeply ingrained desire to be individual and different, yet associate with our own 'tribe' and express ourselves in a personal yet uniform way, something which I'm sure has existed since man first walked on two feet and has personally fascinated me for many years. Many other things which can be seen reflected in the objects is the development and use of rudimentary currency, the evolution of weaponry and armour, the human desire and need for entertainment and pastimes, the insatiable desire for possessions and wealth and the incredible resilience of those without the technology to create something state of the art, still creating something fit for purpose, by whatever means necessary.
For me, what the Pitt Rivers Museum really reflects is the incredible diversity of human culture. The staggering number of objects on display is quite honestly, mind-boggling. Especially when one stops to consider its place in just one culture in one part of the world. I can only imagine what the Victorians would have made of these utterly alien artifacts. Even in a modern world of globalization, instantly accessible knowledge and learning and with unmatched information on ancient cultures and history, I still find something a little bit magical and mysterious about it all. And for me that really is a warming thought. That in a world of total connection, limitless information and a global community, there are still some ancient secrets in the world and some mysteries waiting to be discovered, and some, I hope, that will maintain their mystique and untold magic, forever.
Pitt Rivers amazing collection of anthropological artifacts is a beautiful, refreshing sigh to behold. If you're thinking of giving them a visit, or want to know more, check out https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/