Pitt Rivers Museum – Oxford, England - Atlas Obscura

Oxford, England

Pitt Rivers Museum

Ancient Egyptian wigs, South American feather headresses, a bounty of anthropological artifacts in Oxford. 

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was an English general, but, more importantly, he was a founder of modern anthropology. Though he designed firearms for the military, Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited his great uncle’s estate and became landed gentry. It was with this fortune, that he spent the rest of his life collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects.

In 1884, Pitt Rivers bequeathed his collection of 18,000 objects (and part of his name) to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Besides the objects he also bequeathed a unique curatorial eye. Under the influence of Charles Darwin, he organized his objects by type, and within type, chronologically. This chronological organization demonstrated the evolution of human artifacts over time, a strategy we see in many contemporary museums but which was revolutionary compared to the haphazard curiosity cabinets of the era.

Since its founding, the museum has acquired more than 300,000 objects, donated from scholars, anthropologists and travelers. Due to its large collection, the display cases are packed and exhibitions change with great frequency. In the museum today the objects are grouped by function, showing the evolution overtime of baskets or “smoking and other stimulants.”

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum within a museum, a mysterious cavern attached to the back of the larger Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which offers exhibitions on Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Entomology.

The Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum has recently reopened, with displays of firearms and other weaponry, playing cards, dice, tattoos, and body piercings.

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