Nicholas Crowe, assistant curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, invites Cabana readers to discover one of the world's best collections of anthropology and archaeology, sharing its unique history and artefacts.


Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford © Simon Upton


It is 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The Pitt Rivers Museum has just closed its doors for the night and the echoes of school groups, tours and students get dimmer and dimmer as they spill out onto the streets of Oxford. This is my favorite time of the day. The energy of the many visitors who pass the threshold into the museum and walk down the steps still hangs in the air. It is when the museum is at its quietest.

As an assistant curator for the museum, I use this time to come out of my office and walk around the galleries. It is also a time to retrieve objects for research from their display cases or from the many locked drawers across all three floors of the museum. Some of these drawers are filled with amulets, textiles or toys.

Tonight, I’m in the galleries to retrieve some jewelry from the Balkans; necklaces with heavy silver crucifixes and silver headbands encrusted with turquoise and cornelian. They are displayed on blue velvet, with neat navy labels printed with silver ink, which describe the items on display, where they were collected from, and by whom.

These displays of Balkan jewelry were collected by anthropologist, Mary Edith Durham, who travelled on horseback throughout the Balkan region in the early 20th century. Her collection was donated to the Museum in 1940. It is collections like these, which along with the original founding collection, continue to form the museum as we know it.


Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford © Simon Upton 


The Pitt Rivers Museum is a place that comes with atmosphere. The beautifully lit galleries are filled with dark wooden vitrines that are densely packed with objects, creating an immersive shadow play. The galleries hold one of the best collections of anthropology and archaeology from around the globe and throughout human history.

It is a unique space, with the original 1884 display cases arranged by object type and function. There are display cases dedicated to baskets from all over the world, one to lighting and lamps, another to textiles. It is a place that teaches us what it means to be human, how we survive, make food, alter our appearance to attract a partner, treat our loved ones and those who are no longer with us.


Details, Pitt Rivers © Simon Upton 


One of my favorite displays is filled with the deities, demi-gods and Buddhas of the East Asian religions. They are rendered in gold, jade and brass, and shimmer under the soft lights of the museum.The museum is named after Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) whose gift of around 28,000 objects to the University of Oxford in 1884 led to the foundation of the museum.

Pitt Rivers was an officer in the British Army, experienced in testing the newly introduced infantry rifle. He was also an ethnologist and an archaeologist. Interested in understanding human development, he sourced artefacts from all over the world.


Comb collections, Pitt Rivers © Simon Upton 


He was not much of a traveller himself. He acquired his collection mainly through auction, antique dealers and private collectors. His gift was given on the condition that the university build a museum to house and display the collections, and to appoint a lecturer to teach about it. Staff from the Pitt Rivers Museum continue to teach students in both Archaeology and Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Today, the museum houses over 300,000 objects, plus a substantial photograph and manuscript collection. We say 'objects', but these items, artefacts, 'things', can have deep significance to the cultures who made them, and are often still used today. They are ancestors that hold knowledge of practices in craft, technology and sacred rites. The museum acts as a steward for these collections, ensuring that they are cared for and interpreted in a way that is respectful to the cultures that they came from.


A version of this article was originally published in Cabana Issue 11, titled The Ancestors.


Join the Cabana family