Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford England

Pitt Rivers Museum - Oxford, England

When I went back to England last Christmas, my son Richard collected me from Heathrow Airport and told me that instead of rushing straight back to Suffolk, we were going to spend a day in Oxford. It had been a long time since I had visited Oxford so I was really happy with this new plan.

Over a glass of wine (or two) that evening, I told Richard about an amazing museum I had visited when I was pregnant with his older brother James, and told him I would like to go again the next day.

Unbelievably, he had already decided that was where we were going! 

The next morning was cold but bright and we headed off for the center of Oxford to find the Pitt Rivers Museum. Finding a parking space was a lot harder than finding the museum, but eventually, with the meter filled, we could start our ‘adventure’. The building itself is truly wonderful with a fantastic original glass roof and the lighting is very gentle to protect the exhibits.

This museum is one of the world’s best known for its examples of ethnography and world archeology and attracts

Pitt Rivers Totem Pole

Pitt Rivers Totem Pole

around 250.000 visitors a year, it’s like an Aladdin’s cave of history. It’s named after Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (honestly, that was his name) whose gifts to the University of Oxford in 1884 led to the creation of the museum.

Pitt-Rivers was born in 1827 (died in 1900) and during his military career he was asked to assess the rifle that the British Army were thinking of supplying to their soldiers. This got him interested in how complex guns had become and his gun collection started.

He was not an explorer or even a great traveler, but from the age of 25 years old he started going to auctions, buying from antique dealers and private sales anything that interested him from anywhere in the world. He grouped his finds by ‘type’ and also technical complexity to show progression of ideas.

Later, he gave his amazing collection to Oxford on condition that the University built a museum to display it. The doors opened to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in 1887 and was fully open five years later. 

What I love about this museum is that it is so crowded. Originally Pitt-Rivers donated 20,000 items of his own, which is incredible, but now it is home to over 300,000 wonderful exhibits. Explorers, archeologists, soldiers, sailors, teachers, doctors, missionaries and tourists also donated their finds to the museum.


Pitt Rivers Shrunken Heads

Pitt Rivers Shrunken Heads

They are grouped floor to ceiling on three floors and are grouped in type, that is, weapons,

Samurai Armor Pitt Rivers Museum

Samurai Armor

armour, lighting, medical instruments, body art, masks and so much more. There is even a totem pole that rises up through all three floors. Goodness knows how that was transported to Oxford! 

They have also kept many of the original museum labels created by the museum staff when the museum opened. You can borrow a torch or magnifying glass so that you can read them as the writing has obviously faded and can be hard to read.

How about this little gem of original labeling: “Silvered and stoppered bottle said to contain a witch. Obtained about 1915 from an old lady living in a village near Hove, Sussex, England. She remarked ‘and they do say, here be a witch in it, and if you let her out there’ll be a peck of trouble.’ ” Excuse the grammar, but that is how they spoke at that time!

Or this one, “Nostril clip used by Arab pearl divers in India and Ceylon, to stop breathing”-donated 1926. 

I wandered around for a few hours totally fascinated by so many wonderful things. It seemed we had picked a quiet day as there were only a few other people around. At the end of our tour I asked Richard if he had a favorite, his were some of the early weapons, true boys stuff! Mine were a couple of colorful carved wooden birds in a case near the ground and I went to the museum shop to see if they featured in any of their books or postcards.

I really didn’t expect to be lucky when there are hundreds of thousands exhibits to choose from. But, guess what, not

Haida Mask  Pitt Rivers Museum

Haida Mask

only did they appear on postcards, but my favorite bird was the main logo for the whole museum. The girl has taste! I found out that it was a carving of a Rhinoceros Hornbill made before 1923 by a Kayan artist in Sarawak, Malaysia. This type of carving was created to use as decoration at important feasts and ceremonies.

After buying postcards and books on this magical museum we reluctantly stepped back into the real world but promising ourselves we would return again, hopefully sooner than the 27 years it took me. Oh, and the most incredible thing is that you pay nothing to explore ‘the world’ in this museum; just to make a donation if you want to. So, if you ever visit Oxford, make sure you also visit the Pitt-Rivers Museum. I promise you will really enjoy it. 

So thank you, my darling Richard, for deciding that we would spend a special day in Oxford before joining the rest of the family. I also had a wonderful day with my other son James on that trip home, but that’s a later story. 


Jo Tempest.

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