October 31, 2011

Oxford: the Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museum


Oxford... What first comes to mind when you hear that word? Probably a bunch of old smart people, right? So many famous authors, thinkers, and scientists have come from Oxford University that it may sometimes dwarf the bigger picture of the City of Oxford itself. What's the first thing that comes to mind after visiting Oxford, you say? Still old stuff, but mixed with lots of fun as well. No matter what your particular interests are, Oxford should have something right up your alley, whether it is food, architecture, science, or museums. While there are quite a few museums in the city center, two of them particularly grabbed my attention.


It's difficult to sort out the Pitt Rivers and the Museum of Natural History. Since you may only enter the Pitt Rivers by going through the Museum of Natural History, they're sort of like siamese twins. Here, the similarity ends.

Museum of Natural History
http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/


"Here be dragons!"

As you walk in, take a moment. Take in the experience. No, there aren't really dragons, but who cares about dragons, when there are dinosaurs?!? You can't miss the various skeletons scattered about. By all means, take a look at them, but I would recommend the insect and Lewis Carroll exhibits especially. Exploding in hues across the spectrum, butterflies dominate the insect scene. The Lewis Carroll exhibit was informative and funny, a great hit with children, I'd imagine.


Be sure and plan your journey in advance. It is a small museum, but it is very kid friendly and regularly provides special opportunities for the youngsters to engage the material. In particular, before visiting Oxford at all even, I would recommend that you read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland just to be prepared.

Coming from the Natural History building, you may think there is nothing that could possibly impress after that. One look around should convince you otherwise. At first, it looks like piles of old junk in a dimly lit room. Give it time, though, and you will see the order emerge. Pitt Rivers, the founder of this collection, saw historical artifacts in an evolutionary light. He liked to group things in progressions of technological or artistic advances. Although this was a popular view at the time, the Pitt Rivers Museum is the only museum which holds true to this old, now defunct, understanding of the world. To me, this makes the museum an artifact itself and adds to the charm. So, be prepared to step back in time and think like a 19th century modern man.


Interestingly enough, I can't think of a better way to approach this museum than with no approach at all. With its unique grouping of items, it sort of creates its own flow or narrative, even without the abundance of plaques found in other museums. Don't be afraid to ask questions. The staff are well versed in old-stuff-ology and would be more than happy to discuss the artifacts with you, or even tell you the best place for tea.


In summary, these museums are on the tip-top of my suggestions list for a most enjoyable day in Oxford. My visit was by train from London, which actually had fairly cheap fare. I spent from 7 AM till around 10 PM due to my slavery to the cheapest tickets, but spending a half day would be more than adequate to visit the museums and possibly grab some afternoon tea or pub grub for supper.  Either way, I guarantee you'll leave with a smile as big as this guy's:


Although, you'll be a little more alive looking, hopefully.

~Kaleb Lape

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