Though it is undoubtedly one of my favourite museums, the first time I visited the Pitt Rivers museum, I didn’t like it. As someone with a passion for decolonizing museum practice (Decolonizing: giving interpretive and documentation authority back to the originating community of ethnographic objects), walking into a collector’s “cabinets of curious” was an outdated nightmare.
The Pitt Rivers Museum displays Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (a British military officer’s) immense collection of archaeological and ethnological object spanning the globe, in the exact way he did during the Victorian era. It has been rightly said that the Pitt Rivers is a ‘Museum of Museums’; walking into the room feels like traveling back in time to the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was only until I learned more about this incredible institution I realized the powerful work this institution does behind-the-scenes, and now call it a champion of decolonization in the UK.
Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers displaced the objects he collected not through location or Nation, like most museums, but through typology. All artefacts belonging to spirituality, weaponry, dress and ceremony were displayed together, blending cultures and continents together. And he managed to collect a lot of it- each case is absolutely packed to the brim. While walking along the first floor, the Haida Totem Pole watches over the maze of glass cases, each with enough pieces and hand-written labels to keep a sharp-eyed visitor curious for ages. The museum spans up two more floors, with cases lined around the terraces. Feathers, beads, spears and shields, guns and tattoos follow the visitor through an amazing education on the creativity, whimsy, and absolute beauty of human creation. For me, it was overwhelming, but the atmosphere was remarkable. It is a special feeling to be surrounded by so many unique cultural pieces all in one room, truly a testament to a newly globalised world. But of course, none of these objects exists miles away from their homes without controversy.
On my first visit, I was so overwhelmed by the space I didn’t have a chance to investigate the colonial nature of the collections, and what, if anything, the Pitt Rivers was doing to acknowledge this. There were a few hints through my visit, like a drum from a Two Spirited First Nations artist from Canada, but I was largely unaware of the extend of their work. Only after my visit I began researching this side of the museum, and I can see exactly why they were nominated for Art Fund_ Museum of the Year (2019). Understanding the responsibility the museum has in caring for and displaying cultural pieces from hundreds of different groups around the world- many with potentially dubious origins- the Pitt Rivers is continually collaborating and working with the originating communities. From the Haida Nation of Haida Gwaii, to the Maori people of New Zealand, and the Maasai People of East Africa, the Pitt Rivers museum has welcomed community members into their collections rooms. These communities (after traveling to England) have full access all their ancestral belongings, and worked with the Pitt Rivers staff to correctly document their objects. Pieces with previously unknown colonial records could be portrayed authentically, having been interpreted and documented by community members. The Pitt Rivers has also repatriated human remains, ancestors, back to these communities.
The Victorian display, on special orders from Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers himself never to be changed, is an odd juxtaposition to the forward-thinking collections and research this museum strives for. This museum is memorable first for its incredible ambience -you could visit a hundred times and never see the same thing twice- but it is truly outstanding for their outreach and openness to decolonizing their practice and their genuine relationships to the original owners of their objects.
Admission: Free, Donations Welcome
Within the Natural History Museum, past the Dinosaur.
South Parks Rd
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Emily Friesen researches, develops, and writes content for museums, historic sites, parks, and science centers at an exhibition design consultancy. Currently based in Vancouver, Canada, she completed her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2018, and has previously worked as a museum tour guide, an education programme facilitator, and in collections management. Find her on Twitter @EmilyMarisa__ and Instagram @EmilyMarisa__