Oct. 21st, 2014

jennygordon: (Rossetti - Veronica Veronese)
A few days ago, I went to one of my favourite museums: The Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology in Oxford. It's been over ten years since I last visited, but the place is just as magical as I remembered. For me, the main part of its charm is the fact that it's a "museum of museums" —  founded in 1884, it has been preserved in its original Victorian state, with dimly-lit dark wood cases squeezed together, and artefacts arranged typologically, accompanied by their original tiny, hand-written labels.

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(yep, that's a boat hanging from the ceiling!)

It's a small museum, with two balcony levels, overlooking a central court. It's tucked away, like a secret, through a heavy wooden door at the back of the Natural History Museum, and down a flight of steps into the shadows. And it's dark in there — to protect the light-vulnerable objects — which adds to the sense of mystery and secrets.

More than any other museum I've visited — and I've visited a few! — the Pitt Rivers is an Aladdin's Cave of wonderfulness. In modern museums, labels tell us what an artefact is, where it was found, what date it was made. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, a tiny label might comment only that the artefact is a bracelet from Tibet, made of scented woods to ward off fever. And not everything is labelled, so you can invent the stories behind the objects, or simply revel in the wondering.


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For those in the know, there's more to be discovered: beneath many of the cases are drawers, full of artefacts packed away for storage. You can open many of those drawers and discover yet more treasures hidden within, safe beneath their protective glass. And the wonderful thing is that that drawers often smell  — of wood and old polish, with a hint of the scent of the objects they contain.

If you find a quiet corner, and listen carefully, you can hear the objects whispering to one another, sharing their stories, gossiping about the visitors, daydreaming wistfully about their past. It's a place of a thousand, thousand tales, and I'm sure a few of them have come away with me.

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jennygordon

January 2016

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