Pitt Rivers Museum

mumblings

We recently spent a week in Oxford for a family wedding, the first extended period of time we’ve spent there since Mr. Bsag and I moved away nearly 13 years ago. We spent a few wonderful days wandering around Oxford re-visiting favourite old haunts, one of which was the Pitt Rivers Museum. I’ve written about the museum before, but it continues to fascinate and delight me. I also find the collection quite moving. I think the typological display of the collection emphasises the shared humanity of disparate people. There are — of course — many interesting differences between cultures in the objects they make and use, but much more striking are the similarities. All humans make clothes, musical instruments and objects related to their religious practices, whatever the differences in the types of those items. Unfortunately they all also make weapons to kill and injure one another (of which more later). The overwhelming impression you get is that human material culture is driven by our shared needs, beliefs and fears, and that the differences tend to be rather superficial.

Our first goal on this visit was to find the pigeon whistles. We had recently heard an interesting programme on Radio 4, inspired by the pigeon whistles in the collection, about a project to recreate these items and integrate them into a musical composition. If you’re wondering what a pigeon whistle is, it’s a lightweight, hollow object with a slit or other opening on the top surface, tied to the base of tail feathers of a pigeon. When the bird flies, the air moving over the slit makes a sound. Opinion seems to be divided about why they were used. In some regions and times they seem to have been for amusement or competition, but they may also have functioned to deter raptors (birds of prey) from attacking valuable carrier pigeons1. Whatever their function, they were evidently in widespread use in east and south-east Asia, and came in a huge variety of forms. There were some wonderful examples with multiple pipes coming out of them like miniature panpipes. I love to hear what they sound like.

With pigeon whistles ticked off our list, we just wandered happily around the ground floor at first, studying anything that took our fancy. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was drawn to the textiles, marvelling at the beautiful colours and the immense amount of work that must have gone into embroidery or bead work. Of course there are constructed garments as well, and the one that amazed me most this time was a gut parka made by Arctic-living native people2. It was made from the intestines of seals, opened out into strips and carefully sewn together to make a lightweight, wind-proof, waterproof outer garment. The label didn’t explain how the gut was processed, but I was fascinated and looked up some detail on it later. As you can imagine, there are a lot of steps involved to clean, salt, dry and finally sew the intestines, and a special stitch was used to join the strips and make the seams waterproof. The example in the museum had red sinew stitches at intervals along the seam (presumably for decoration), and incredible embroidery at the hem and cuffs, with tiny stitches. The whole thing must have taken months of work to finish, and was incredibly beautiful, even though it was made out of what would have been quite unpromising raw material. It was translucent, and airy looking, and the strips had been joined in a clever way to shape the garment carefully. I was just awed by the artistry of it.

Another set of items I loved where the canoe bailers. These were gorgeously carved, and the shape struck me as perfectly ergonomic for the efficient removal of water from a canoe. I imagine that if your canoe is filling with water, efficient bailing is going to be pretty important to you. These bailers were not shaped like buckets (as I had imagined they might be), but like broad scoops, with a single handle projecting over the scoop along its axis. It was designed to be grasped in a similar way to holding an iron, scooping forward to fill with water and then ejecting that water over the side in one movement. The way that the handle was arranged would have meant that it was perfectly balanced when the scoop was full of water, without straining the wrist. They were beautiful, both decoratively and because of their design that fitted so perfectly with their purpose.

By now we had already spent quite a while in the museum and had time to visit only one of the two remaining floors. Mr. Bsag chose the weapons floor, because it was, and I quote, “exciting”. It was certainly that, but if you visit the museum, I would recommend you start with that floor and work your way down to more peaceful objects. Ending on weapons leaves you with a rather depressing outlook on humans. Granted, some of the objects are extremely beautifully decorated, but the purpose of that richly carved chunk of wood is still to smash in the skull of another human. I did like the bows and arrows, however, and the ‘axe pistol’ made me smile. It has to be the least practical pistol I’ve ever seen (literally a pistol with a small axe on the end of the barrel), but it struck me as the kind of thing a five-year-old might design, because the thing that makes a weapon more exciting is the addition of another weapon.


  1. I can imagine that this might have worked. I can also imagine that raptors might have learned that the whistle signalled the approach of lunch.
  2. Unfortunately I didn’t note down at the time which people made this particular parka.
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