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 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 http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk

The 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; [4] this has now grown to more than 500,000 items, many of which have been donated by travellers, scholars and missionaries.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum was shut from 17 March 2020 [5] to 22 September 2020. [6] The decision was made to remove from display the shrunken heads (tsantsa), as well as other human remains during this closure. [7] The heads had been on display since the 1940s. [8]


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 museum's collection is arranged typologically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. This layout owes a lot to the theories of Pitt-Rivers himself, who intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. Whilst this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer fashionable in archaeology and anthropology, the museum has broadly retained the original typological organisation of the displays, partly due to a stipulation in the Deed of Gift that any changes to the displays 'shall not affect the general principle originated by the said Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers'. [9] The display of many examples of a particular type of tool or artefact, showing historical and regional variations, is an unusual and distinct feature of this museum. [10] The museum has a high density of objects on display, and the displays are changed periodically. [11]

At 11.36m high, the Haida house post or totem pole is the largest object on display in the museum. From a Haida community, it originally stood outside Star House in the village of Old Massett (Haida name Uttewas), on Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. The house was built around 1882 and belonged to chief Anetlas (c.1816–1893). The pole was purchased via Edward Burnett Tylor and transported to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1901. [12] [13]


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. [14] 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. [15]


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. [16]

In 2019, the Pitt Rivers Museum was finalist of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award. [17]

Colonial legacy

In recent years, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been called sector-leading [18] in its work on decoloniality. Further details can be found on the website. [19]

In September 2020, the Museum announced it had made a number of critical changes to its displays, [20] 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 Museum has also said that it would make changes to the labels to include stories "through the voices of artists and indigenous leaders". [7]

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. [21] 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. [22] [23]

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.

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<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, and the history of archaeology, anthropology, and museum collections.

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Brenda Zara Seligman born Brenda Zara Salaman was a British anthropologist who was the winner of the Rivers Memorial Medal in 1933 for five years of fieldwork. She was married to Charles Seligman who has overshadowed her contribution. He died in 1940 and 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.

John Spencer Purvis Bradford SA, RAI was an archaeologist and a pioneer in landscape archaeology and the use of aerial photography. He was born in Ealing and studied at Christ Church, Oxford University. During the Second World War he was stationed at San Severo, Italy as part of the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing, starting in January 1943 where he analysed photographs taken by the RAF. In 1947 he was appointed University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Ethnology at the Pitt Rivers Museum. He worked in various projects in Italy, Greece and Cyprus that revolved around aerial photography and land surveys.

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.


  1. "ALVA - Association of Leading Visitor Attractions". www.alva.org.uk. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  2. "Pitt Rivers Museum". Culture 24, UK. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  3. "Chisholm, Hugh, (22 Feb. 1866–29 Sept. 1924), Editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica (10th, 11th and 12th editions)", Who Was Who, Oxford University Press, 1 December 2007, retrieved 3 June 2022
  4. "Dan Hicks 2013. Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum. In D. Hicks and A. Stevenson (eds) World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford: Archaeopress".
  5. "Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers and other museums SHUT over coronavirus". Oxford Mail. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  6. "Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum to reopen on 22 September 2020". oumnh.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  7. 1 2 "Shrunken heads removed from Pitt Rivers Museum display". BBC. 14 September 2020. Retrieved 24 January 2021.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. "Oxford museum removes 'racist' shrunken heads from display after 80 years". www.theartnewspaper.com. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  9. "Deed of gift". web.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  10. "Pitt-Rivers and Typology". web.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  11. "About us". www.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  12. "Star House Pole: Early Images of the Haida Totem Pole in the Pitt Rivers Museum". www.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  13. "Pitt Rivers Museum: The Haida Totem Pole". Pitt Rivers Museum: The Haida Totem Pole. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  14. Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (29 April 2009). "The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford reopens". The Times . Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  15. "2008-9 Annual Report". web.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  16. The Guardian (Tue 5 Jul 2005): 'Kids declare Oxford museum a family favourite'
  17. "Finalists announced for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019". Art Fund.
  18. "Film captures efforts to 'redress historical wrongs' at Pitt Rivers Museum". Museums Association.
  19. "Committed to Change". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  20. "Critical Changes". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  21. Mills, Eleanor (6 February 2019). "Living cultures". Museums Association.
  22. Wall, Amanda S. (4 December 2018). "Maasai Community Members Work to Decolonize Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum". Museum Studies at Tufts University.
  23. Murphy, Adrian (27 November 2018). "Living Cultures: Maasai leaders work with Pitt Rivers Museum to tell their story". Museums + Heritage Advisor.

Further reading