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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford

What is the Pitt Rivers Museum?

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum of anthropology and ethnography in Oxford that has a controversial history.

Artifacts at the Pitt Rivers museum

Pitt Rivers Museum History

‘The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford’ – according to a tweet by student-led protest and decolonisation movement Rhodes Must Fall. The Pitt Rivers is a controversial and contested cultural space at the centre of recent decolonisation movements.

It was established in 1884 as a museum of anthropology and ethnography, and houses over 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, and from all periods of human existence. Its founder was Augustus Pitt Rivers (or Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers to give him his full name). Pitt Rivers had a successful career in the British Army, but also developed a keen interest and expertise in anthropology and ethnology. He became a collector of artefacts illustrating the development of human invention, and when he died, he bequeathed his collection to Oxford University, leading to the creation of the museum.

It’s organised according to Pitt Rivers’ original design and ideology. Instead of sorting the artefacts by chronology or geography, the museum is curated ‘by type’, to demonstrate ‘connection of form’ between different cultures and time periods. Pitt Rivers believed his collection showed progression and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. This evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer fashionable in archaeology and anthropology and deemed intellectually naïve. However, the museum continues to display objects in this way for the glimpses they offer into the mindset of the first curatorial staff, as well as into the history of anthropology.

Many of the artefacts making up the Pitt Rivers collection were taken from other cultures without permission. Some of them are extremely controversial, perhaps most famously the tsantsas or shrunken heads from South America. These are severed and specially prepared human heads that were used for trophy, ritual or trade purposes – often to terrify enemies.

The International Council of Museums’ ethical code is clear that human remains must be displayed with great care, and tact and respect shown towards the human dignity held by all peoples. Many visitors to the museum did not feel that the Pitt Rivers adhered to this code. The museum itself recognised that visitors often understood the displays of human remains as depicting other cultures to be ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’. Rather than enabling visitors to reach a deeper understanding of different cultures, the displays reinforced racist stereotypes.

In 2020, before the museum reopened after the Coronavirus pandemic, it removed the tsantsas from its displays. This is not the end of the revisionist process, however. The museum has further human remains in its collection and it’s working with descendent communities to repatriate these, or to display them with greater sensitivity.

The Pitt Rivers’ current curatorial team has been recognised and praised for its decolonisation efforts. It has readily accepted the challenges of stewarding a controversial historic collection and meeting shifts in public attitudes with intellectual integrity. The museum has integrated these efforts into the visitor experience itself – providing analysis of the current debates and issues within the decolonisation movement alongside the artefacts.

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