@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) Chinese Turkestan, Kashgar – Embroidered wild silk
(2) North American, 19th century (?) – Apron of coarse flannel, ornamented with Marginella labrosa shells (a West Indian species)

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford was founded in 1884 when Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (phew!), an influential figure in the development of archaeology and anthropology, gave his collection of almost 20,000 objects (gathered from all over the world and representing many cultures both past and present) to the University of Oxford. Since the museum’s inception the collection has continued to grow and now consists of over half a million objects. On entering the museum – a highly atmospheric, dimly lit maze of 19th century wood and glass display cabinets overflowing with objects – you’d be forgiven for thinking all half a million plus are currently on display (and apparently a very large percentage of the collection is on view. From the museum’s website: “In some instances the ‘displays’ are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution”).

Objects are arranged according to how they were made or the purpose they served, rather than by cultural origin or age. This method of display, fairly unique amongst anthropological and archaeological museums, focuses the viewers’ attention on the skill & creativity with which people across the globe have tackled, and found solutions to, the common problems of daily life. In many ways this method of display serves to highlight our similarities rather than our differences, and makes for a very absorbing visit.

This is a small (and apparently entirely random!) selection of some of the pieces that caught my eye. I struggled to get any great shots in the dim light (set low to conserve the objects) and minimising reflections off the glass cases proved tricky, but I hope they’ll convey at least some sense of this fascinating collection… well worth a visit!

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) Sarawak, Borneo – Frame on which warp threads are strained and prepared for dyeing using the ikat technique. Groups of threads are bound at numerous points, which together form the required pattern. The bindings are made with fibre of lembah (curculigo). When dipped in dye, the bound parts remain undyed while the rest of the warp takes up the dye. After the bindings have been removed the warp will be put on a loom for weaving to produce the ikat cloth (and further dyeing stages may be required). The ikat technique is used widely, and in some regions the weft may also be dyed in a similar fashion (both warp and weft are dyed to produce double ikat)
(2) Salish, Haro Archipelago, Canada – Woven blanket (also used for wearing), probably made of dyed goat and dog’s hair

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) Chilkat, S.E. Alaska – Dance apron of deer skin, fringed & hung with puffins’ beaks & deer-hoofs; with textile designs representing the Bear
(2) the original, hand-written object labels are things of beauty in themselves…

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) West Africa – Ritual masquerade mask representing a god or ancestor
(2) Peshawar, W.Pakistan – Child’s shirt, cotton, silk, multicoloured embroidery, small pieces of inset mirror-glass

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1 & 2) Aleut/Unangan, Aleutian Islands, Alaska – Man’s parka made of seal intestine. The cuffs and hem feature a complex border of fourteen thin bands of parchment-like sealskin dyed red and black. These are overwoven with fine caribou-hair embroidery in geometric patterns. There are more than 20,000 embroidery stitches in the border alone.

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) one of the many ‘Magic, Ritual, Religion & Belief’ display cabinets
(2) Sussex, England – Silvered & stoppered bottle said to contain a witch, obtained about 1915 from an old lady living in a village near Hove, Sussex. She remarked “and they do say there be a witch in it, and if you let un out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble!”

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) Trophy human skulls (?)
(2) Milan(?), Italy – Portions of three packs of playing or tarot cards (?)

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) England & France – 17th Century keys
(2) Aurès Mountains, Algeria, Africa – Surgical instruments

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1) Oceania (?) – Chest or forehead ornaments (kapkap), possibly 19th or early 20th century, turtle and tridacna shell (?)
(2) Japan – Noh theatre masks (the one in the middle is described as “representing a spirit in the form of a young boy”)

@ the pitt rivers museum, oxford

(1, back) Zulu, South Africa – cattle skin shield (isimbi)
(1, front) Swazi, Swaziland – miniature shield and spear (assegai),
carried by girls when dancing
(2) Inuit, Sisimiut, Western Greenland – Girl’s traditional outfit (detail), made by Haldora Davidsen 1991-92

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Information about each piece has been derived from the captions that accompany them in the museum (or from my digging through the Museum’s online collections database). Object labels were not always visible and I’ve included a (?) where I’m hazy on the details of specific objects.