7 of Hearts: A Visit to the Oxford Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums

I’ve recently temporarily moved back in with my parents in my home town of Oxford, England, while I sort out obtaining some form of income and finding a new place of my own. It is a rather strange experience, both in terms of adapting to no longer living on my own and just returning to old haunts and the streets I remember from my childhood. Oxford is a small city and very much built to encourage cycling, including to places that I mentally have always classified as being too far to cycle: Boars Hill and Shotover Hill, both just outside the town, are places that as a child I always visited by car, not by bike, but they are well in cycling distance for me now as an adult. Moving closer in, the city centre is a bizarre mixture of stasis and decay; the colleges and the libraries, all the buildings that give the city the moniker “City of Dreaming Spires” remain, surrounded by closed down shops, driven out of business by a combination of the pandemic and lockdowns and the incredibly high cost of land around Oxford, both driving up the shop’s rent and limiting the number of people who can afford to live and work here. Oxford, with its incredibly high house prices and turnover in vital jobs like teachers and medical staff, feels rather like a zombie city; still very much alive, but very much dying.

That’s a discussion for another post though, because today, in the torrential rain, I hopped on a bus and headed towards one of those dreaming spires: the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers museum attached to it.

Beginning construction in 1855 to house the new natural philosophy and science departments established in 1850, the museum is, even before you enter, an incredibly striking building, deliberately so. A lot of effort was put into the aesthetic of the building, both inside and out. With the central tower, long wings and the neo-gothic architecture it appears as a secular church, and indeed the construction was partially funded by the sale of bibles. Given that one of the most famous events to occur in the museum was the debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford on evolution verses creationism. this appearance makes me giggle somewhat.

Having been a nerdy child who grew up in Oxford, the Museum of Natural History (or, as we usually call it, the Dinosaur Museum) is a place of fond memories. Following the trail of casts of Megalosaurus (the first dinosaur to ever be described) across the museum lawn, the anticipation of the short, shadowy antechamber as you enter, the charismatic megafauna of the central collection of fossils, which have stood there mostly unchanged for as long as I remember, with the iguanodon and tyrannosaurus rex casts greeting me like old friends directly ahead of the entrance doors, not quite as imposing as I remember, but still grand and impressive. The museum is incredibly light, with the main public area being enclosed by a glass ceiling, held upright by thin iron work pillars, with images of flowers and foliage incorporated into them. Around the edges, separated from the centre with pillars each made from a different type of rock run cloisters with specimen tables to one side and glass cabinets leading you through the geological eras of earth on the outside (as well as the mandatory somewhat overpriced museum shop). Another layer of cloisters is upstairs, giving fantastic views of the central covered courtyard and the architecture of the museum.

Indeed, in this new visit, it was mostly the architecture that really got my attention, rather than any specific exhibit on this visit. I wasn’t in a super detail orientated mood, preferring to just wander around and enjoy the cool space. In a neat piece of serendipity, the museum had a presentation about itself among the mammal skeletons, explaining its history and its design, letting me fill in gaps I sort of already knew from years of visiting it. That wandering established something for me: The Oxford Museum of Natural History is one of my favourite spaces to visit, architecturally speaking.

It was the thin iron support pillars that really caught my attention here. With the arches they make as they reach the roof standing in the aisles of the museum feels like standing in the ribcage of some vast, ancient animal which has swallowed me along with the elephants, dinosaurs and whales who’s bones stand here. It is a place meaningful for me as one of the first places I was allowed to really explore by myself, feet meeting the stones at my own pace, something that I find psychologically really important. It is precious to me as a place of learning, a place of exploration, a place of history both personal and natural, and as a place in and of itself.

However, there is one place within it I never went as a child. Through a pair of doors in the outer wall, you drop down a few stairs and find yourself in the main room of the neighbouring Pitt Rivers museum. The Pitt Rivers is a museum of anthropology, built around the collection of Augustus Pitt-Rivers, a Victorian scientist and military officer, with all the baggage that that sentence implies. The collection is housed in many, many, many cabinets of dark wood crammed throughout the room, dominated by a huge faded totem pole, taken from a Haida community, originally created, according to the A4 piece of paper sitting at the bottom, to celebrate the adoption of a young girl. It is an absolutely huge collection of artefacts from across the globe, including, for many years, a number of shrunk heads which have now been removed from view. The space feels small due to all the cabinets and pieces jammed inside, and the dark wood and opaque ceiling contrasts dramatically with the airy light of the Natural History Museum you’ve just left. Even before we talk about the colonial history of the collection or the curious way it is laid out, simply the physical space feels oppressive. I never went into the Pitt Rivers as a child not because I was scared of anything in there, but I was geniunely unsettled by just the aesthetics of the museum itself. It feels like If the Natural History Museum’s bone-like architecture matches its exhibits, then the Pitt Rivers matches its name in that it feels like you are standing in a pit.

The collection itself is organised not by time or location or cultural origin of the items on display but rather it is organised by what the objects are and how they are used. Japanese noh masks are next to masks from the African savannah and native american ritual masks. Instruments from around the world sit like a ghostly orchestra in their pit organised into strings, woodwind, drums. Weaving and textiles line the left hand wall in their glass cases. The idea is to allow direct comparison between cultures and time periods with objects intended to fulfil the same function, and while it does sort of work (and I suspect someone with more relevant training and historical background would get a lot more out of it than me) With the size of the collection there will almost certainly be something here that interests you, although due to covid restrictions I only had a limited time window so I didn’t spend too long in this section…and I just really don’t like being there in that space.

I don’t, however, want to sell the current staff of the museum short. The Pitt Rivers museum has done a lot of work trying to decolonise their activities. Numerous pieces have been noted to have been returned to cultural owners, exhibits like the aforementioned shrunken heads which displayed human remains and which focused on displaying other cultures as savage have been removed, and most visibly in the museum itself is a meta analysis of the museum itself, directly discussing the different ways colonialism expresses itself. Some exhibits have next to them annotated examples of how the museum used to label them, discussing how even in something as seemingly “objective” as a description, cultural assumptions and colonialism still slip through. Again, this is very much not my field: there is a reason that most of this post has focused on the feelings that the basic architecture, lighting and layout of the museum inspires in me, rather than deep discussions of the content of the museum. I have no experience in any of this, only what I’ve read around the issue since getting back this afternoon, but as far as I can tell from various articles, such as this one on Maasai tribal elders visiting the museum to assess and attempt to reclaim objects from the Guardian (which also raises the simple issue that a lot of the Victorians who collected this stuff in the first place just didn’t actually know what they were picking up, so there’s plenty of mislabelled objects in the collection), this one from the Uncomfortable Oxford organisation, a group dedicated to examining, as the name implies, the less comfortable aspects of the city and university’s history, and this post from Returning Heritage.. The consensus seems to be that the Pitt Rivers is doing a lot more than most museums to face up to and overcome its colonial past, with the two “but”s of a.) there is still plenty of other issues, such as legal issues around returning artefacts, practical issues about who to return them to, and, let’s acknowledge it, issues within the museum itself and b.) the museum is incredibly rooted in the history of colonialism, down to even its name, so it will still take a huge decolonialism effort to overcome this. Still, I want to acknowledge the work the museum has done, and continues to do.

It is just a little hard to look at the totem pole, erected for the adoption of a girl into a family, and not feel it is drastically out of place in this dark room.

One of the ways the museum has been trying to improve is by inviting in a wider range of individuals and groups to contribute to the museum, and in a brightly lit side room to the main display area sits an exhibition of particular interest to me, as a nonbinary trans individual. “Beyond the Binary”, an exhibit on a variety of queer experiences from around the globe spilt into categories including indigenous identities, rituals and identity, objects of power (whether created by or claimed by the queer community) and representation from queer individuals. Like the rest of the museum, it is an extremely dense display of objects and text surrounding them, although a number of centrepieces are given more space to show themselves than in the main section. Three that physically stood out were a pair of pianos with personal history for queer musicians, a wall designed to look like the tiles of a public toilet which was a common location for queer people to leave messages and trade secrets via writing on the walls, which is replicated here with a set of markers left for visitors, and the central figure of the exhibition space, a telephone booth covered in trans supportive stickers, featuring inside a tv screen giving the history of the local trans sticker artists. One that particularly stood out to me was a display featuring intersexuality, explaining the violence done to intersex people, and that made note of the differences, allegiances and tensions between the non-binary and intersex communities.

It was, overall, an extremely well done exhibit in the most part, but I do worry that it is a bit too inside baseball as it were as a public installation. While I understood a lot of the cultural background of what was on display, I’m not sure how someone unconnected to the community at large would approach it. It definitely does some things right, such as providing a sign of common community terminology at the entrance (for example, noting that the word queer is seen as offensive by some community members but has in general been reclaimed, and how it can be used as a noun, verb and adjective depending on the situation). Then again, the focus of the exhibit does not seem to be on telling one story (a practice that the museum is, of course, trying to get away from), but as many different stories as it can, some that I wasn’t even able to see because the full text required the scanning of a QR code, which my phone often refuses to do so I only do it when needed.

And that was my visit to these two museums. As I said, I was in a somewhat non-detail orientated mood, so my takeaway ended up being more on the museums themselves than the exhibits. After a quick browse through the museum shop, being tempted by a book on the history of the natural history museum and how it was built until I winced at the price tag, I left the building into the cloudy but not rainy afternoon.

I then got annoyed with myself for not remembering to go check if the bee hive on the stairs (a glass hive with exits through the wall to the outside of the building, not one that just lets out bees onto the stairs) was still there, but, unable to re-enter due to the covid visiting restrictions, I headed home, and wondered what other Oxford museums I could visit, and possibly write about here.