The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has had such a huge impact on the national imagination that the news it was being restored, updated and reorganised filled me with horror. Oh, no. What are they going to do to it? If any museum in Britain needed to remain entirely untouched by the destructive hand of progress, it was surely the Pitt Rivers. Think how much it has given us.
For instance, remember that episode of Morse called The Daughters of Cain, in which the Oxford professor Felix McClure is stabbed to death in his chambers and his former cleaner, who is initially Morse’s prime suspect, is then stabbed with the same knife? Well, that knife was stolen from the Pitt Rivers Museum, and was, in fact, an iron-bladed gut-cutter made for Zeta III and given to the museum in 1919 by Bishop May. Eagle-eyed Harry Potter fans will also have noted that the shrunken head that appears in the Knight Bus scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban is a Pitt Rivers shrunken head. I probably don’t need to remind you, either, of how Philip Pullman makes recurrent use of the Pitt Rivers in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and how the alethiometer device was inspired by assorted thingummies in the collection. In short, without the Pitt Rivers, Britain would be a land facing a significantly lower cosmic threat to its existence from the forces of intergalactic evil and many fewer impossible-to-solve murders. Who among us would want that?
Still on the subject of Harry Potter, the producers of the films used the Pitt Rivers as the inspiration for that crazy magic shop in which Harry buys his wands. The very idea of passing through an interdimensional doorway to enter a parallel world is a quintessential Pitt Rivers idea. After all, where the conventional way to access a museum is to go through a front door, the Pitt Rivers thwarts this dull urge by not actually having a front door.
To find the Pitt Rivers, you need to visit Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, then wander around the back, past the dinosaurs and the hanging marine specimens, until eventually you chance on a mys terious gothic portal, beyond which lies your grail. At least, that is where the Pitt Rivers used to be.
I therefore arrived at the secret doorway in the Museum of Natural History filled with trepidation. Have they ruined the Pitt Rivers by giving it an entrance? Have they spoilt the display by lighting it and putting it in some sort of order so that it begins to make sense? Have the handwritten labels that seemed to be the work of a 90-year-old professor with Alzheimer’s been replaced by proper captions? Are the displays themselves thinned out so that most objects no longer have other objects plonked in front of them? Indeed, have they spaced out the cabinets so that visitors can actually pass between them?
Reader, I dreaded all these potential “improvements” just as much as you, so it is with considerable relief that I am able to report that not a single one of them has been implemented. The Pitt Rivers, which reopened this weekend after a year-long restoration, is just as chaotic, crowded, confusing and crazy as it always was. It might even be a tad crazier – because, believe it or not, they have somehow squeezed even more display cases into the opening vista.
Or so I read. To the naked eye, the only change that is actually discernible is that the temporary exhibition space with the ghastly hessian walls, which was put here in the 1960s, and used to bar the way to the museum, has been replaced by a gleaming white viewing platform that allows you to see the chaos ahead immediately. For now, this new entrance platform looks a little too 21st-century and sensible to suit the Pitt Rivers, but once the resident spiders have spun their gothic webs across it and visiting Potterists have stuck some toffee to it, it will work just fine. Otherwise, everything seems exactly as it was.
The museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who donated his madcap collection of anthropological treasures to Oxford University on the condition that a special museum be constructed to house them. The hunchback of Notre Dame’s personal architect appears to have been employed to design the building, as the lion’s share of the interior is taken up by lots of doomy, gothic darkness, looming over a few precious square feet of usable exhibition space. The practicality reading is zero. The mood is pure Hogwarts.
Pitt Rivers’s original gift was of 20,000 objects. This has now swollen to 500,000. From war clubs to shrunken heads, totem poles to parrot-feather aprons, from model houses to full-size boats, all have been greedily gobbled up and loosely involved in a contentious display scheme that seems intent on cramming as many things as possible into every cabinet.
In fact, the crowds of objects are arranged in loose thematic groupings – types of headgear, burial methods, tools, musical instruments. They even have an underlying purpose, which is to trace the continuing arc of evolution: Pitt Rivers believed in the old-fashioned civilisational ideal that all societies progress from a primitive to a developed state, and the underlying ambition of his seemingly haphazard groupings was to prove this point. For example, by looking into one of his cabinets, you can see that what began as a primitive conch shell blown into by Tahitians ended up as a sophisticated predecessor of the French horn.
I see nothing overly embarrassing in this typical Victorian world-view. In today’s PC world, however, the words “primitive” and “civilisation” have become cultural hot potatoes. So, these days, the Pitt Rivers Museum goes out of its way to stress its divergence from its founder’s evolutionary model, and thereby finds itself in the awkward position of having to validate a set of display ambitions from which the validation has been removed. Add to these discombobulating museum circumstances the post-colonial difficulties involved in possessing one of the world’s finest collections of shrunken heads, and you have an institution that needs to keep a 360º watch on its back.
Which is such a shame. Because I can think of no other museum in Britain in which the act of following your nose is rewarded as richly as it is here. At the Pitt Rivers, nobody can ever be certain what comes next. Among the new displays is a particularly exciting one devoted to re cycling. Not the kind of recycling you or I perform: the thoughtless thrusting of plastic bottles into rubbish bags. I mean real recycling: the miraculous creation of new things by the ingenious reuse of old ones. Such as the gorgeous blue arrowheads made by aborigines from discarded cold-cream jars. Or the huge African lip plugs created from unwanted Jackson’s Wax Polish containers. Or the Chinese opium pipes fashioned from imported ink bottles. Now that’s what I call recycling.