Pitt Rivers Museum

By Sarah Corbett

The collection of the General Pitt Rivers, a 19th century soldier and scholar is a wonderful sensory onslaught. His thirst to discover and to develop his understanding of human development oozes from a plethora of cabinets. The organizational system is an arrangement which tells us something of the quests and concepts which clearly delighted him. Objects from diverse origins and cultures are gathered under heading such as “Treatment of dead enemies” which contains a ghoulish gallery of shrunken heads, in contrast “Religious figures of Asia” greets the onlooker with rows of calm meditative Buddha.

Another glass display case holds an impressively expansive selection of shell currency of the Pacific.

To begin to list and quantify the jewellery is beyond the achievement possible in one article, and an essay could (and should!) be devoted to each and every cabinet. Highlights for me included a collection of pendants representing hands, a vast array of carved wooden combs from the Congo, lined up neatly in rows, akin to a battalion of hair care gadgets! A pair of horn bracelets from Tripoli with silver and coral inlays, these were a matched bracelet pair which I would enjoy wearing. For the first time I saw the enormity of the carnelian cabochon encrusted belt, labelled In this instance as Balkan. Such an imposing and bold item, and worthy of the debates surrounding the correct use and its origins. Even in this collection we find uncertainty with the tag stating Europe Balkans, horse ornament or belt!

And in the corner of the cabinet, unlabeled a sweet elevated Saharan ring made me smile.
To please a diverse group of adornment fans were beads from pre-history until the 19th Century.

Many pieces attributed to locations which led to the frequent raising of my eyebrows!

Case after case and step after step I encountered a cacophony of jewels, ancient beads and artifacts Beside Tabzimt nestled beside Mapuche silver. Saharan Kel Air pendants snuggled in close proximity to a squash blossom necklace. So many intriguing pieces which had lost their tags. Cowries, schkabb and seed necklaces happily grouped together despite their diversity.

The experience was heady and exhilarating. Even my tendencies to order and neatness did’nt care at all that that the collection was not orderly. The presentation technique enhances the experience.

The textiles were another chapter of wonder from Ainu coats of Japan to feathered south American capes – each a delight which deserved to be savoured, yet each a small cog in a great creation!

As I left my senses were alive.

I was exhilarated, an emotion similar to when leaving a roller coaster ride which took your body to new tolerances of G force is the only description I could offer for the moment, and I was instantly plotting to ride it again!

In conclusion- when I retire I want to work at the Pitt Rivers museum, and I promise not to tidy up!

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