Sunday, 25 January 2015

Pitt Rivers Museum

January, with all its cold greyness and anticlimax after the excitements of Christmas and the New Year, is always enlivened for me by my birthday in the middle of the month and every year my husband and I try to go out for the day if we can.

On Tuesday then, we went to Oxford. In particular, we visited the Pitt Rivers and Natural History museums, both part of Oxford University and housed on the same site in adjoining buildings to the east of the town centre. In advance, I was attracted to the Pitt Rivers while my husband felt drawn to the Natural History museum - something for us both and a good joint day out.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is an extraordinary place with its profusion of wonderful objects in closely packed glass cabinets shown in the photograph below. It's housed in a building that dates from the late 1800s and initially may seem overwhelming but it's definitely a museum with which to persevere as it holds unique treasures.

The most extraordinary thing though is the way the exhibits are catalogued and displayed. The phrase 'cabinet of curiosities' never seemed more appropriate.


Almost everything is displayed according to its function and type, It's possible to compare bowls, cooking pots, spears, masks and textiles and almost anything you like from all over the world and it's fascinating to see the different approaches to solving constructional and decorative problems ... and to see how spontaneously similar so many things are in their design.

There were so many lovely objects that it is hard to choose between them. For this post, I have a random selection both of the sublime and of the almost unimaginable - and I'm sure much else will show up in subsequent posts during the year.

The first at the top of this post is for me certainly sublime and is a woodcut called Hungry Bear by Jody Wilson. It depicts a grizzly bear in the act of catching a salmon and is so typical of much of the artwork, pots and carvings of Western Canada - in this case the Coast Salish.

Then in the same category come two delicious African pots below. The first is an Ibo cooking pot made by a woman from Inyo village in southern Nigeria.


The second is a pot with a delightful bird image about which I can tell no more as the label was very uninformative and my searches on the internet have yielded little information (any thoughts?).


There were many textiles though most did not seem to photograph well through the glass so I have included only two. The first is a beautiful marriage top from Peshawa in West Pakistan, decorated with mirrors designed to protect the wearer from the evil eye.


The second shows lengths of hand woven and embroidered cloth from Africa. I particularly liked the baggy trousers (top) from Nigeria and the diserai (a serong-like garment shown immediately under the trousers) which was collected in Timbuctoo in 1940.


In contrast, there were so many objects which seemed almost unimaginable to the modern European eye, each offering a seemingly extraordinary solution to a perennial human problem. The first photograph shows interesting sources of body armour with a breast plate made of crocodile skin back plates and, to its right, a helmet made of fish skin from the Gilbert Islands in Micronesia - both wonderful and extraordinary. 


The next photograph shows women's under-knickers from the Evenki (Tungus) people of the Asian north Arctic and made of reindeer skin - I can think of nothing  more uncomfortable!


The next shows a selection of solutions to the need for a pillow (or neck support) from Africa - all seemingly uncomfortable but beautiful objects in their own right.


The last shows a wonderful mask. There were many from all over the world, but I think this was my favourite. It was made by the Haida Gwaii people to be used in a ghost dance signifying the kidnapper of naughty children ... very scary!


This is a wonderful place and gave a visit much enjoyed by us both. It has offered me much to follow up and investigate and some things that may even pop up in my work, who knows, and there was also the Natural History Museum that I have yet to mention ...




10 comments:

  1. I visited this extraordinary museum a while back, its a must see for practically everything you could possibly be interested. I think it has been smartened up since I visited, its on my list of places to go back to.

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    1. Hi Debbie. It's definitely in the process of smartening itself up thanks to a big grant from the National Lottery etc and a slightly more modern feel. New labeling is gradually being installed and some of the display cabinets have been updated without losing the overall extraordinary feel. I was told all should be updated by 2017. It is without doubt a must see and the staff I spoke to were real enthusiasts and a mine of information which made the visit even more interesting.

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  2. Goodness, what an amazing place! I recognize the Coast Salish and the Haida Gwaii pieces since I am on the west coast of British Columbia but the other pieces are, for the most part, totally unknown to me. So it really is fascinating to see them! Except for those neck supports..they give me a headache just looking at them!! Thanks so much for this post!!

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    1. I knew the Coast Salish and Haida Gwaii pieces would interest you. So much similar imagery was all around me when I lived in Duncan on Vancouver Island in the early 1970s. The impact of the striking designs has stayed with me all my life.

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  3. I've had a lovely visit to this museum through you, Margaret ... thank you so much for your photography skills :)

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    1. There was so much to see and I have so many more photographs. I'm sure they will pop up in other posts over the year.

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  4. I had planned to visit Oxford for the day whilst in London in early December - now I am very sorry I didn't! Lovely photos Margaret - am glad though that we get to wear much more comfortable underwear!

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    1. Oxford is a delight, as I'm sure you know. The Pitt Rivers is only one of the things to see ... 2 or 3 days needed at least?!

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  5. "Cabinet of curiosities" indeed - amazing! And happy birthday wishes to you, Margaret!

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    1. Many, many cabinets and so many curiosities ... an extraordinary place. And thanks for the good wishes!

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