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Pitt Rivers Museum - City's treasure trove open again

Reg Little, Oxford Times

Seeing the three seated figures again after such a long break is somehow reassuring. The two bears, one eating a frog, the other sitting with two cubs at its feet, look well. A raven with a human between its wings makes up the impressive trio of carved figures on the totem pole that arrived in Oxford a century ago to become the largest object at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

When the doors open again at the Pitt Rivers on May 1, others may feel similar relief to see the 40ft totem pole, with its crest figures, looming in the distance and keeping watch over this remarkable place.

The Pitt Rivers hit the jackpot, with the award of a £1m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. And for the last nine months it has been closed while the museum, famous for its shrunken heads, has been given a major facelift.

But the problem was that many had come to love the Pitt Rivers exactly as it has always seemed: an overcrowded combination of Aladdin’s cave, art gallery and superior junk shop.

Sure, every so often someone would blow the dust off the ‘Oxford’s best-kept secret’ cliché, and point to the fact that many visitors missed out on seeing one of the world’s great collections because they could not find the entrance at the back of the vast neo-Gothic cathedral that is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in Parks Road.

The Pitt Rivers director, Dr Michael O’Hanlon, will tell you that something like one in five of the visitors who made it to the entrance, simply took one look down the steps and retreated back to the safety of the tyrannosaurus and tarantulas in the bigger museum.

But for those who persisted, the memory of that narrow staircase leading into a darkness crammed with eclectic treasures from the native peoples of the world could be viewed a rite of passage for new arrivals to the city.

Never mind whether you had witnessed Eights Week or celebrated May Morning on Magdalen Bridge, the real test of whether someone really knew and loved Oxford was whether they had made it past the dinosaurs to find the mind-boggling conglomeration of ethnological curiosities awaiting in the Pitt Rivers.

It is not difficult to see why this place and its exotic objects have proved inspirational to poets and writers from James Fenton, who in 1982 published The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford as a tribute to the mysterious, magical qualities of the artefacts he remembered seeing as a child, to Philip Pullman, who used the museum’s collections as inspiration for aspects of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

It is almost as if history demanded that this place, with its witches’ masks, Samurai swords, tools, toys and musical instruments, should overflow in its richness, defying all attempts to catalogue and display in an organised way.

After all, Lieutenant General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, who started the ball rolling by presenting 14,000 archaeological and ethnographical specimens to Oxford University, was a wonderful Victorian eccentric.

He had offered the collection to Oxford University in 1883 on condition that they provide a permanent home for it and someone to lecture on it.

When the specimens were put on display in the £10,000 extension built on the back of the University Museum to house them, some of the first visitors were shocked to find objects of pagan ritual resting alongside those of the Christian church. But the layout followed faithfully the general’s intentions. Weapons went alongside weapons, drums alongside drums, lamps beside lamps, boats beside boats, regardless of what part of the world they came from.

The great fundamental truth he believed his collection demonstrated, was that the development of mankind was a gradual process. “The law that nature makes no jumps,��? he observed, “can be taught by the history of mechanical contrivances in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatterbrain revolutionary suggestions.��?

We can be fairly sure that the good general would have viewed the £1.5m revamp as displaying evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, tendencies.

One of the most striking things about the new project is that it has involved the restoration of the entrance to its original glory.

The director explained that by stripping away a small exhibition gallery, which was added in the 1960s, visitors will be welcomed by a marvellous view that we have been deprived of for half a century. Now we again immediately see a maze of cases spread before us and the dramatic sight at the far end of our totem pole from Canada’s north-west coast.

“The problem was people looked in and saw this small temporary gallery,��? explained Dr O’Hanlon. “Some left without knowing that the Pitt Rivers Museum was behind this section. We’ve constructed a platform at the museum’s entrance to allow visitors to enter on the same level as the Museum of Natural History and from this point, a wide set of stairs leads down into the displays, with a platform lift to the side to make access easier for wheelchair users and parents with pushchairs.��?

Gesturing to the ceiling, he said: “Getting that up caused the most anxiety.��? A full��? size outrigger canoe now hangs suspended from the roof, near the main entrance, high above three new cases on Australian Aboriginal art.

Imogen Simpson-Mowday, an executive research assistant, points to the fact that many more of the 500,000 objects held by the museum can now be put on display thanks to the work. New space has been created on the Lower Gallery where family activities such as monthly Pitt Stops and popular holiday programmes can take place, supported by the Clore Duffield Foundation.

“There are also eight additional displays, focusing on painting and decorative styles,��? Ms Simpson-Mowday added. “They feature many previously unseen artefacts from the reserve collections exhibited in the museum’s characteristic style.��?

At the same time, an environmental control system has been installed beneath the entrance platform to help preserve the museum’s collections for the future, while greatly improving the air quality for visitors.

The revamp involved removing and condition-checking some 5,000 objects and checking them, before replacing them in their cases. Thankfully, the old labels, with their spidery writing, will remain.

For despite all the work, the director is determined that the special atmosphere of the Pitt Rivers remains, even if in part it is all illusory.

For the modernisation of the Pitt Rivers has been a costly ongoing operation.

In March 2004, the museum was awarded £3.7m by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build a new extension to the museum’s well-known galleries in South Parks Road.

The new building brought all the museum’s academic staff, who were spread over a number of sites in North Oxford, back to one place, which also housed a new conservation laboratory, with modern facilities for visiting researchers, many from indigenous groups, wishing to study their cultural heritage.

A £3m contribution from Oxford University enabled a new lecture theatre, exhibition gallery and seminar room to be built within the new extension.

The £8m extension was opened in 2007 by the much travelled ex-Monty Python Michael Palin, who had funded a year-long post to help restore the displays.

“I have always loved the Pitt Rivers’s wonderful eclectic displays,��? he said. “In an over-regimented world, they stimulate the curious, and encourage a genuine spirit of discovery.��?

Nor has the museum been afraid to keep up with the times with its exhibitions, never more so when it happily bridged the gap between Pamela Anderson and the head shapers of Sarawak by creating a new permanent Body Arts exhibition a few years ago.

Where else could you hope to see breast implants squeezed into a display featuring prehistoric toiletries and a hair found in the tomb of an Egyptian king?

On May 1 the museum will remain open until 7pm, with live traditional music and informal talks. It should be quite a party, with hopes already high of visitor numbers passing the 250,000 mark over the next year.

“The idea that Pitt Rivers never changes is a myth,��? said the director.

Maybe now the moment had finally arrived, he said lowering his voice, for the place to finally emerge from the giant shadow of General Pitt Rivers, if not that magnificent totem pole.

Link: Oxford Times 23rd April 2009

© Oxford Times 2009