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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

pitt-rivers museum, oxford

A day trip to Oxford a couple of weeks back to visit friends and a gladly accepted suggestion of going to the Pitt-Rivers - a return trip for all of us, but it's one of those museums you can't just visit once. They've spruced up the entrance, but the giant totem pole is still at the end of the room, and the original Victorian glass and wood cabinets still cluster together, packed full of curiosities – the spectral traces of the empire's looting and pillaging across the globe and folklore remnants from across the nations of the UK. 

There was enough in the cabinets alone to satisfy last time I was here: talismans and shrunken heads, bobbins and dulcimers, masks and insects in dresses, all arranged by type rather than location, but this time part of the pleasure is in pulling open the drawers underneath to find more. When you're looking at a cabinet titled Charms Against The Evil Eye or Magic And Trial By Ordeal, you really want to see what's hidden in the drawers underneath, and what there is is more of what's in the display cases, as well as whole drawers filled with woven wheat harvest tokens in plastic bags, or curative and fertility-enhancing wax molds of parts of the body, or devil doctor bone wands, miniature metal hands and plastic seaside trinkets for charm bracelets.

The labels are as compelling as the artefacts: handwritten at the time the items were brought in by different people on tiny, apparently random shapes of card and haphazardly formalized with a border and string. It all makes the cases even more of a visual maze. Everything is ordered and classified, but with a personal touch, so that although the items are out of time and place, disconnected from the real world rituals of sound, smell, touch and taste, in the end Pitt-Rivers really is a kunstkammer, or wonder-room, a reconfiguring of the world and the past through the curator's eyes, and a memory theatre for our eyes.

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