On Wednesday 21 June, art students in the Lower Fifth and Lower Sixth visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. On arrival, we were struck by the vastness of the museum’s collection of artefacts; three floors packed with displays from all over the world. Before we were released to explore the museum (and the adjoining Natural History Museum), we had a talk by Melanie, one of the museum’s curators, in which she reminded us that each object was made with a specific purpose: to be a weapon, a decoration, an item of clothing, an object of faith and more. None of these items were made with the intention of being exhibited in a museum so it was interesting to consider the wider contexts that made up their story.
As we got dug into the objects of the museum, it was easy to find things relevant to our individual projects because of how extensive the Pitt Rivers’ collection of things are; objects range from mummified ibises from Ancient Egypt to a corroded USB-stick from north London in the 2000s. Staff there were also very friendly, gleaming to tell us facts like how the museum is home to the smallest doll in the world and how many of the items still have attached to them their original labels from the 19th century, when they were first obtained.
However, as proud as the museum is about its sweeping collection of items, it also acknowledges the violent means by which many of the objects were obtained, and the items close ties to British Imperial expansion. The museum’s displaying of some items made us rethink the ethics of holding such meaningful objects – symbols of great significance to many persecuted cultures – in a museum that so heavily benefitted from the actions of the British Empire. Imagining these objects in their original context elevated their meaning from being random things in a crammed museum to intimate representatives of lost cultures.
Whilst the museum still echoes an imperial past, it has been working in the last few years to ‘decolonise’ the collections. Many displays, such as the tsansta (shrunken heads) and pieces of human remains have been taken down to distance the museum from racist connotations and respect the descendants of the people these artefacts were taken from. All in all, the Pitt Rivers Museum is captivating in its huge variety of objects but, as with all museums, it is important to remember their original contexts to grasp their true significance.