Sunday, July 03, 2005

Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford

Sir Terence Clark, a fellow tazi-saluki fanatic, just sent me a link to an exhibition of photographs by the late explorer Wilfred Thesiger. He wanted me to see this photo of a peregrine in the Emirates before World War II. The whole gallery is worth exploring, offering glimpses into not just one byt many lost worlds -- for instance, that of the Marsh Arabs , destroyed by Saddam in an act of ecological and cultural genocide.

But even better, the entrance to Thesiger's exhibit led through the virtual portals of one of my favorite museums on earth, the Pitt Rivers at Oxford in England.

General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) was an English soldier from an old family who became interested in what we now now as archaeology and anthropology just as they were becoming (relatively) scientific disciplines. He was also interested in the evolution of tools. To quote John Greenway: "Living in the first excitement of evolution, Pitt-Rivers noted that the inorganic rifle was evolving as inexorably as Darwin's finches or Mendel's garden peas. With this astonishing discovery he turned his interest to weapons of primitive cultures and saw the same invisible process at work."

He left his extensive collections as the nucleus for the Pitt Rivers Museum.It is the repository of artifacts from every culture imaginable sent in from the entire British Empire and everywhere else Britain's soldiers and diplomats might reach. If you can think of it, they have it, from fish spears to musical instruments to pigeon flutes. As they say in an online "brochure": "The Pitt Rivers still retains its Victorian atmosphere. The cluttered cases, the original small handwritten labels and the absence of intrusive text-panels all contribute to the special experience it offers.

We visited the Pitt Rivers on a rainy day in 1994, when we were in Oxford visiting artist-zoologist Jonathan Kingdon (no links, but I'm working on it.) We could have spent six months and never been bored. The collections are in wood-and-glass, cabinets, some vertical, some horizontal, grouped by function rather than geography, around a central atrium. We were looking down from the third floor when I said to Libby: "I wonder if they have Chinese pigeon flutes ?"

A professorial, white-bearded gent examining a nearby case cleared his throat. "Sir...if you'd look down one floor below to your left, you'll see a tall vertical case...yes, that one. I believe you'll find a satisfactory collection there."

We did.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from wahooart.com, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT7K6.