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Pitt Rivers Museum - Canoes, monkey skulls and a witch in a bottle

Christopher Howse, Daily Telegraph

Christopher Howse marvels at the human stories behind the treasures in Oxford's revamped Pitt Rivers museum

Visitors to the reopened Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, will be issued with little wind-up electric torches, for this great anthropological collection of artefacts resembles, in a way. a mine of treasures in a series of shady galleries, with a central cavern where the tin edgings of ancient handwritten labels wink under the artificial light.

This High-Victorian display hall, opened in 1884, is built like an engine shed decked with three storeys of wrought. iron verandas stuffed with the handmade objects from a thousand lost cultures.

"Entering / you will find yourself in a climate of nut castanets," as James Fenton put it in his poem on the museum. "... a mute violin, / Whistling arrows, coolie cigarettes / and a mask of Saagga, the Devil Doctor, / The eyelids worked by strings."

Now, after a 10-month overhaul, the Pitt Rivers is even more Victorian: a vile Sixties neon-lit, hessian lined entrance gallery has been stripped away and the visitor - stepping in from the strange mothballed world of the neighbouring University Museum (dinosaurs, stuffed animals and geology) - sees the glory of the collection laid out in its original display cases, some like glass sarcophagi, some like Regency shopfronts.

Yet the museum is actually a very 21st-century supraobject, much like the internet, argues Michael O'Hanlon, its director. Visitors here are self-directed, not led by the nanny's hand of explanatory panels. They can make their own connections, open endless scallop-bandied drawers tucked beneath display cases, trace the stories they choose in the crowds of objects.

Over against the far wall its famous totem pole towers three Doors tall. (Not that it is really a pile of totems, but an emblematic celebration of the adoption of a girl by a clan.) Straight above hangs the lateen-sailed canoe, Salama, dug out from a tree by Tanzanian fishermen, with lashed-on outriggers to fit it for shallow-water work.

In this museum, always look up - for around the first-floor galleries, above head height run a series of smooth paddles, hundreds of them, resting like sleepers on overhead rails. A dozen more canoes hang in the air too, dusted and preserved, one sleek sealskin and timber nunber brought back by Sir John Ross in 1833 after his four years caught in the ice of the Northwest Passage.

This is a real museum, though, not a mere pantechnicon of lost and lovely items. It did, I suppose, change my life when I stumbled across it 30 years ago, as it must have changed others'. First it bowled me over with the beauty of its objects: ioe-skates and obsidian mirrors, ivory bows and chased armour, basketwork sieves and cactuswood graters.

Then it provoked a deeper wonder, at the variety and underlying common humanity of cultural solutions to everyday problems: music-making, sewing, hunting, fire-making, sitting, sawing, locking, healing. For the great key to the Pitt Rivers is its thematic arrangement. Artefacts are grouped not by geographical origin but by function.: here a case of children's toys (a monkey skull for a little Dayak, a coconut-husk spirit ship for a Siamese child) and there a case full of trepanning tools. (Trepanation, the art of boring holes in the skull, dates back 7,000 years and covers the globe. A set of tools from North Africa is presented complete with bone fragments from the skwl of the patient, who
recovered and throve.)

"Every time I walk through here," says Dr O'Hanlon, glancing towards some charms against the evil eye, "I try to look at a new object"

There are plenty to know. The museum is founded on the 20,000 artefacts donated by Lieutenant-General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers 125 years ago. He collected his last two surnames when he inherited a fortune, and he collected his anthropological items after a career improving Army firearms and pursuing Darwinian theories of cultural evolution. Hence his keenness for displays showing (in his eyes) development from the savage's improvisation to the European's technical works of art.

Anthropologists do not look on culture like that any more. Yet Pitt Rivers' collections, and the thousands of artefacts added in the decades since (totalling 179,765 by 1945 and 296,981 by 2006), have come into theii own again since fashions changed once more in the Seventies, and scholars, for years shy of studying objects instead of people. strove once more to elicit the stories they embody. Certainly, indigenous people take a close interest in items that the Pitt Rivers preserves but which have been lost to their own culture. A party from the Blackfoot people is due to borrow ceremonial shirts for study to revive their lost skills.

A four-year building project has added an airy wing for research. Looking down from a walkway connecting with the old museum, one can see men and women cataloguing axe-heads while wearing purple rubber gloves. No doubt these are for the benefit of the artefacts, though Henry Balfour, the first curator (reigned 1891-1939), once cut himself while cataloguing a curare-tipped arrow. He stoically set about recording the effects of this deadly poison. After some time he noted to his relief that age had rendered the curare innocuous.

But Or O'Hanlon really does want ordinary visitors, families,to visit Sunday afternoons promise sortingboxes, trails, activity sheets, a story corner and craft activities for children. Online, 360-degree rotating camera-views give an impression of what to expect Bul they cannot hint at the ecstasy of discovery awaiting those who like this sort of thing. Never mind staring with eagle eyes at the Pacific, silent upon a peak in Darien, this is a new way of looking at the ordered cosmos.

Look at it like this. Each exhibit, in this Noah's Ark of all the Earth's artefacts, is a wormhole out of the museum and into the lives of the culture that made it. There are great bundles of these wormholes, connecting like dendritic brain cells. Follow the connections and you will be able to make out what makes human beings tick.

Man is a ritual animal, and everything that Homo faber makes embodies the rites of daily life. Go to the Pitt Rivers
and find out.

Link: Daily Telegraph 25th April 2009

© The Daily Telegraph 2009