Pitt Rivers Museum

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Pitt Rivers Museum
Interior of Pitt Rivers Museum 2015.JPG
Pitt Rivers Museum interior, 2015
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Pitt Rivers Museum
Location Parks Road, Oxford, England
Coordinates 51°45′31″N1°15′18″W / 51.7586°N 1.2550°W / 51.7586; -1.2550
Type University museum of archaeology and anthropology
Visitors468,013 (2019) [1]
Website prm.ox.ac.uk

Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum displaying the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford in England. [2] The museum is located to the east of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and can only be accessed through that building.


The museum was founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, who donated his private collection to the University of Oxford with the condition that a permanent lecturer in anthropology must be appointed. Edward Burnett Tylor thereby became the first lecturer in anthropology in the UK following his appointment to the post of Reader in Anthropology in 1885. [3] Museum staff are still involved in teaching archaeology and anthropology at the university. The first curator of the museum was Henry Balfour. A second stipulation in the Deed of Gift was that a building should be provided to house the collection and used for no other purpose. The university therefore engaged Thomas Manly Deane, son of Thomas Newenham Deane who, together with Benjamin Woodward, had designed and built the original Oxford University Museum of Natural History building three decades earlier, to create an adjoining building at the rear of the main building to house the collection. Construction started in 1885 and was completed in 1886.

The original donation consisted of approximately 22,000 items; this has now grown to more than 500,000 items, many of which have been donated by travelers, scholars, and missionaries.


The exhibition space in the museum's building is a large, rectangular, colonnaded room. It has two mezzanine levels and a massive, vaulted ceiling, and is brimming with glass display cases and exhibits. [4]

The museum's collection is arranged typologically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. The display of many examples of a particular type of tool or artifact, showing historical and regional variations, is an unusual and distinct feature of this museum. [5] This topological layout is based upon Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers' theories; he intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. Although this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer appropriate in the modern display paradigm for archaeological and anthropological objects, the museum has broadly retained the original typological organization due to the Pitt Rivers Deed of Gift which stipulated that any changes to the displays "shall not affect the general principle originated by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers". [6]

As the museum has an extensive collection of objects, those on display are changed periodically. [7]

The museum was closed due to the COVID-19 quarantine. The museum was closed from 17 March 2020 [8] to 22 September 2020. [9] During this closure, a decision was made to remove displays of shrunken heads as well as other human remains. The museum's director issued a statement, "Exhibiting Tsantsas (shrunken heads) reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s core values.” [10] The shrunken heads had been on display since the 1940s. [11] [12]

The Haida Totem Pole

The Haida totem pole, from Star House in Massett village on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), Canada Pitt Rivers Museum Totem pole.jpg
The Haida totem pole, from Star House in Massett village on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), Canada

The largest object on display in the museum is the Haida house post, a totem pole, which has a height of 11.36m. It originally stood in front of the Star House in the village of Old Massett (Haida name Uttewas), on Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. The Star House belonged to Chief Anetlas (c.1816–1893); it is thought that the house was constructed in 1882. The pole was purchased by Edward Burnett Tylor and transported to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1901. [13] [14] [15]


Despite the Pitt Rivers being so full as to be "bursting at the seams", designs for a new museum building in the 1960s were never realised. [16] :41 By 1964, the university wanted to expand the science area onto the Pitts Rivers site and move the museum to a larger plot on Banbury Road. [16] :41 A round museum was proposed, covering a site larger than the Sheldonian Theatre, the Clarendon Building, and the Bodleian Library combined. [16] :41 The concept was strongly supported by the museum's curator Bernard Fagg and, after concerted lobbying from Fagg, the university's Standing Committee on Museums and Galleries. [16] :41 In February 1966, the university greenlit the new museum and promised to keep the Banbury Road site free for three years while funding was arranged. [16] :43 Several architects were considered for the project including Leslie Martin (who was already working on plans for a new zoology building), Powell & Moya, and Pier Luigi Nervi; Nervi was selected and planning applications were submitted and approved by Oxford City Council in a 32-29 vote. [16] :43 The new museum needed £4.5 million to cover construction costs and £2.25 million as an endowment. [16] :43 In May 1968, Fagg suffered a stroke which left him in hospital until the end of the academic year and significantly limited his involvement in fundraising efforts. [16] :46 [17] By 1970, the campaign had lost momentum, the fundraising committee dissolved, and in September, the university announced the project would be shelved. [16] :46

In 2004, the museum received £3,700,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build an annex adjoining the museum. Building work was completed in 2007, bringing the academic staff of the museum back to the site, and providing a laboratory for conservation of the specimens.

A second phase of development began on 7 July 2008 necessitating the closure of the museum and galleries. The museum reopened on 1 May 2009. [18] In this work, the 1960s exhibition gallery was dismantled, restoring the original view through to the museum's totem pole. Original display cases were returned to their original place at the front of the museum. The space upstairs vacated by these cases provides additional space for a Clore Duffield Education Centre. A new entrance platform was built to allow visitors to enter on the same level as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and improves access for wheelchair users and parents with pushchairs. The entrance platform provides re-located shop and reception areas. An environmental control system was also installed. [19]


The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, won The Guardian newspaper's award for Family Friendly Museum of 2005. [20]

In 2019, the Pitt Rivers Museum was finalist of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award. [21]

Colonial legacy

In recent years, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been called sector-leading [22] [ failed verification ] in its work on decoloniality. Further details can be found on the website. [23]

In September 2020, the museum announced it had made a number of critical changes to its displays, [24] including the removal from display of human remains and the installation of a new Introductory Case as an intervention in its permanent galleries that engages with the colonial legacy of the museum. The changes attracted worldwide attention as they involved the removal of the museum's collection of shrunken heads, which had been on display since the 1940s, citing the reason that "the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s values today". [25] [26] The museum has also said that it would make changes to the labels to include stories "through the voices of artists and indigenous leaders". [10]

As part of this process the Pitt Rivers Museum is meeting with originating communities to address errors and gaps in the information it stores, and to discuss repatriation. [27] One of these is the Living Cultures initiative, a collaboration between the museum, a Maasai community based campaign group called Oltoilo Le Maa, and community development organisation InsightShare. [28] [29] Additionally, the museum, together with the Museum of Natural History, returned the remains of 17 Aboriginal Australians to the Australian government in 2022. [4]

Notable people

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Augustus Pitt Rivers</span> English army officer, ethnologist and archaeologist

Lieutenant General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was an English officer in the British Army, ethnologist, and archaeologist. He was noted for innovations in archaeological methodology, and in the museum display of archaeological and ethnological collections. His international collection of about 22,000 objects was the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford while his collection of English archaeology from the area around Stonehenge forms the basis of the collection at The Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Totem pole</span> Monumental carvings by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest

Totem poles are monumental carvings found in western Canada and the northwestern United States. They are a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by First Nations and Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast including northern Northwest Coast Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian communities in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth communities in southern British Columbia, and the Coast Salish communities in Washington and British Columbia.

Anthropology of religion is the study of religion in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures. The anthropology of religion, as a field, overlaps with but is distinct from the field of Religious Studies. The history of anthropology of religion is a history of striving to understand how other people view and navigate the world. This history involves deciding what religion is, what it does, and how it functions. Today, one of the main concerns of anthropologists of religion is defining religion, which is a theoretical undertaking in and of itself. Scholars such as Edward Tylor, Emile Durkheim, E.E. Evans Pritchard, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Talal Asad have all grappled with defining and characterizing religion anthropologically.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museum of Anthropology at UBC</span> Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada displays world arts and cultures, in particular works by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. As well as being a major tourist destination, MOA is a research and teaching museum, where UBC courses in art, anthropology, archaeology, conservation, and museum studies are given. MOA houses close to 50,000 ethnographic objects, as well as 535,000 archaeological objects in its building alone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edward Burnett Tylor</span> English anthropologist (1832–1917)

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor was an English anthropologist, and professor of anthropology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oxford University Museum of Natural History</span> University museum of natural history in Oxford, England

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) is a museum displaying many of the University of Oxford's natural history specimens, located on Parks Road in Oxford, England. It also contains a lecture theatre which is used by the university's chemistry, zoology and mathematics departments. The museum provides the only public access into the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Horniman Museum</span> Museum in Forest Hill, London, England

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is a museum in Forest Hill, London, England. Commissioned in 1898, it opened in 1901 and was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in the Modern Style. It has displays of anthropology, natural history and musical instruments, and is known for its large collection of taxidermied animals. The building is Grade II* listed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marius Barbeau</span> Canadian ethnographer

Charles Marius Barbeau,, also known as C. Marius Barbeau, or more commonly simply Marius Barbeau, was a Canadian ethnographer and folklorist who is today considered a founder of Canadian anthropology. A Rhodes Scholar, he is best known for an early championing of Québecois folk culture, and for his exhaustive cataloguing of the social organization, narrative and musical traditions, and plastic arts of the Tsimshianic-speaking peoples in British Columbia, and other Northwest Coast peoples. He developed unconventional theories about the peopling of the Americas.

Wilson Duff was a Canadian archaeologist, cultural anthropologist, and museum curator.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dan Hicks (archaeologist)</span> British archaeologist and anthropologist

Dan Hicks, is a British archaeologist and anthropologist. He is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. His research is focused on contemporary archaeology, material culture studies, historical archaeology, colonial history, heritage studies, and the history of art, archaeology, anthropology, and museum collections.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Edenshaw</span> Haida artist (1839–1920)

Charles Edenshaw was a Haida artist from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. He is known for his woodcarving, argillite carving, jewellery, and painting. His style was known for its originality and innovative narrative forms, created while adhering to the principles of formline art characteristic of Haida art. In 1902, the ethnographer and collector Charles F. Newcombe called Edenshaw “the best carver in wood and stone now living.”

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert Sutherland Rattray</span> British anthropologist

Robert Sutherland Rattray,, known as Captain R. S. Rattray, was a barrister and held a diploma in Anthropology from Oxford.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge</span> University Museum in Cambridge

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bernard Fagg</span>

Bernard Evelyn Buller Fagg MBE, was a British archaeologist and museum curator who undertook extensive work in Nigeria before and after the Second World War.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museum of Ethnography, Sweden</span> Museum in Stockholm, Sweden

The Museum of Ethnography, in Stockholm, Sweden, is a Swedish science museum. It houses a collection of about 220,000 items relating to the ethnography, or cultural anthropology, of peoples from around the world, including from China, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific region, the Americas and Africa. The museum is situated in Museiparken at Gärdet in Stockholm. Since 1999, it is a part of Swedish National Museums of World Culture and is also hosting the Sven Hedin Foundation. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 11:00AM – 5:00 PM, and Wednesdays 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM and is closed on Mondays.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museum anthropology</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sir Francis Knowles, 5th Baronet</span> British archaeologist (1886–1953)

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brenda Seligman</span> British anthropologist

Brenda Zara Seligman was a British anthropologist. She was awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal in 1933 for five years of fieldwork. She married fellow ethnologist Charles Seligman. After he died in 1940, she continued to extend their private museum collections. She rose to be vice-president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and to leave vast collections to leading British museums.

Clare Elizabeth Harris, is a British anthropologist, art historian, and academic, specialising in South Asia, Himalayas, and Tibet. She has been curator for Asian Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum since 1998, and Professor of Visual Anthropology at the University of Oxford since 2014. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA), the United Kingdom's national academy for the humanities and the social sciences, in July 2019.

Schuyler Jones CBE is an American anthropologist and museum curator. He is best known for his ethnographic fieldwork in the Nuristan region of Afghanistan, as well as his role as Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, between 1985 and 1997. Jones is an Emeritus Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford.


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Further reading