I count myself lucky that I grew up in a family interested in museums, in a country where the major ones are free. I’ve seen a fair number around the south of England, but my favourite by a long way is Oxford’s Pitt Rivers collection. The first, large, open room is the natural history museum. A vast, pointed sperm whale jaw greets you at the entrance, pointing you onward.
Science old and new sit side-by-side. The room is sort of a jumble of different things, somehow encapsulating so much in relatively little space. The museum sent me back to the excitement I felt as a child again. Some exhibits made me want to head straight back to university to learn. Others made me lust to wander the world. But, lovely as this room is, follow it through to the back and you will find yourself in the original Pitt Rivers’ collection.
My sister compared it to the room of requirements. And speaking of Harry Potter, recognise this..?
The real head, alongside two…ummm…friends, can be found in cases among the farrago. The whole place makes my skin crawl with horror and delight simultaneously. Each case, cabinet and container is sorted by theme rather than time or place, illuminating cross-cultural links as well as differences. It is easy to think that horrors such as shrunken heads come from some primitive world but in a draw somewhere on the first floor I discovered a little box containing simply the tip of a human tongue. It was beautifully labelled with where it had been collected, that place just so happened to be my hometown in rural southern England…
The room is beauty and horror intermingled, with intricate ivory carvings, capes made of bird feathers or beads and a hundred other, unimaginable wonders alike. I cannot begin to guess at the lifetimes of work which produced all we saw.
Of course, all of this is set in the wonderful city of Oxford. The broad stone streets, spiraling with ivy, are pretty much an idealised English city. With the general buzz of students and tourists, the town seems to give off a contented hum of life, with something beautiful around every corner.
And my family being as we are, we had include food in our trip. We stopped by Greens, a wonderfully friendly little cafe, catering to vegan and gluten-free needs as well as the omnivores among us. We took a seat upstairs by an open window to watch the wind play with the leaves of the trees outside and marvel at the good English weather, while we tucked into roast beef and stilton, gluten free tofu-scramble sandwiches, and tomato and lentil soup, and the delectable array of home-baked goodies.