Whilst winding our merry way to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, our group ran into a buzzsaw of Oxford tradition known as Encaenia, involving graduation, honorary degrees and very warm-looking black capes and frocks, and celebrated with lashings of whipped cream and silly string. Our group called an audible and instead made our morning jaunt to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which I thought of as the world’s coolest junk shop, with items from around the world and from various ages grouped not by cultural or geography but function, so that all the Cambodia masks, Japanese masks, Ethiopian masks, etc. were displayed together, with tools and guns and other weapons arranged the same way.
The pudding, as you can surmise, lacked a theme, the setting was a bit murky to protect the items, and the museum overall has been left in a state of old-fashioned authenticity, with old-style explanatory cards for items still displayed in fonts unforgiving to modern eyes. But on the longest day of the year, and perhaps the hottest, the air conditioning to protect the collection was an unexpected bonus.
The museum was one huge self-guided tour. “There is no start and no story to follow,” as a pamphlet accurately put it. That lack of guidance could be intimidating, but such an open plan also means the opportunity to stumble upon intriguing things you had no idea you had an interest in, like what ancient societies used for currency in the absence of paper bills and minted coins.
The museum was founded in 1884 by (deep breath) Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who donated 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford, on condition a museum be built to house them; he also stipulated the novel arrangement by form. According to the welcome pamphlet, it now has over half a million objects, various practical and quotidian items, as well as pictures and manuscripts. We spied many, many glass cases over the three levels.
I am overusing the word quirky on this blog, so I’ll just call the tiny exhibit of camel photos cute. Every UK museum apparently has an exhibit of netsuke (carved Japanese toggles before the days of pockets) and Pitt Rivers Museum had plenty, with a good solid paragraph of information on the placard for netsuke addicts. All the objects, even seemingly minor ones like beads, drawstrings, and the aforementioned netsuke, got their due. I was most interested in the collection of all types of currencies from different cultures, including various notched rocks and carved wood (hard to make change with these things).
While the Bodleian Library may occupy the heights of Western Culture, the Pitt Rivers Museum emphasizes the down-to-earth utilitarian objects humans of all races and various time periods used in their quotidian lives.