Oxford encounters

My favourite thing about Oxford is the Pitt Rivers Museum, the wonderfully evocative collection of cultural artefacts from around the world that is situated behind the Natural History Museum. My least favourite thing, granted a certain reverence for the Ashmolean….well, it’s everything else actually. Before I get onto my boring, resentful old diatribe about Oxford elitism let’s have a look at the career of this most extraordinary man.

Augustus Lane-Fox changed his name to Pitt-Rivers later in life upon the inheritance of another considerable estate. He must have seemed like any typical, moneyed Victorian gentleman: buying his military commissions, assuming various titles and fathering nine children but throughout his life he developed and maintained such an obsession with the progression of humankind that he has often been considered the father of modern anthropology.

It is almost impossible to take the man out of his time and, looking at his picture, it’s easy to see yet another stuffy old example of a typical colonial patriarch. However, his contribution to the then comparatively recent field of archaeology was substantial, particularly on the subject of Roman Britain and British pre-history. He was influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and became one of the first in his field to concentrate on day to day objects and parallels between the lives of ancient peoples in different parts of the globe.

As he rose to academic prominence and inherited yet more money he was able to amass a huge collection of objects from all over the world, no doubt taking advantage of rapidly improving communication between the outposts of an Empire which, by the closing decades of the 19th century, looked set to swallow up half the earth. He endowed a museum in Oxford to house the collection and specified how the objects should be classified according to function rather than origin and (perhaps foreseeing the vagaries of fashion which are forever tinkering with other museum collections) stipulated that it should be kept in its current form.

Many of the objects on display are decidedly primitive. Textiles, household items, musical instruments and ceremonial costumes; they are made of fragile organic materials such as rush, cotton and animal skin and are all displayed in dimly lit rows of old-fashioned glass cases. Yes, there are real shrunken heads in there somewhere. Neither the friends with whom we made our first visit nor my granddaughter with whom I returned the following week were overly impressed but it remains one of my firm favourites.

Not being alone, I was unable to spend long enough picking out artefacts from the remoter parts of India, particularly the fabrics which would have been so interesting to compare with those being sold as traditional nowadays. Over a hundred years may have passed since the objects in this museum were assembled but in rural India that equates to barely a week in the world of Western haute couture. Nor was there any time to acknowledge our forthcoming trip to the Kalahari but there was at least one little treat I could take advantage of.

One of the guides on duty was the romantically named Navigator, a black Zimbabwean who seems to have fetched up in Oxford after working for a few years in London and other parts of Europe. He has a very good knowledge of the collection and an understanding of the diversity of human nature that suggest that his travels have lived up to his name. As I was shortly to visit the country which he still regards as his home, we had some discussion about the current regime in Zimbabwe but on that subject (for both our sakes) I had better remain silent.

The friends who accompanied us on our first trip preferred the city tour the Bodleian while Lily preferred the dinosaur in the Natural History Museum but neither visit took in any of the colleges or the cathedral. Luckily, my former Hungarian guest, Zoltan has supplied me with a super set of photographs of “the sights of Oxford” and I would be jealous but for the fact that he was equally impressed by my pictures of Budapest.

So Oxford has been “done” and when I return, I can ignore all of that oppressive elitism and concentrate on seeking out the tribal artefacts at the Pitt-Rivers and the Minoan collection at the Ashmolean which, after all, is the sort of thing such educational establishments are supposed to be for.  I used to regard Oxford’s reputation for Dreaming Spires and Ivory Towers as a harmless sort of “Hogwarts fantasy for grown-ups” but when I look at the current cadre of British leadership I’m not so sure. So many of our new-era career politicians are proud to have studied at Oxford that one has to wonder if Arrogance is now a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Categories: Britain, West of England

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