History of the Museum and its Displays

The Pitt Rivers Museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects from all parts of the world and all time periods. It is truly a global museum. The museum is also a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate students.Pitt Rivers

The museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University of Oxford. Find out a little more about him here and a great deal more about him here.

There were more than 26,000 objects in 1884, but now there are over half a million in the museum. Many were donated by early anthropologists and explorers. The collection includes extensive photographic, film, manuscript and sound collections.

Details of some of the important events that are associated with the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum can be found here. The museum has always been housed in a small three galleried building at the rear of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (to which, at the beginning, it was formally attached). You can find out a great deal about the connections of people and events that led to the museum we know today here

Since the founding collection moved to Oxford there have been many curatorial staff working in the museum including Henry Balfour, Beatrice Blackwood, and many others.

Today the museum is a dynamic, forward-looking institution with many connections to source communities throughout the world (see, for example, the recent projects with the Haida People of Canada).

The Famous Typological Displays

museum interiorIn most ethnographic and archaeological museums the objects are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. At the Pitt Rivers Museum they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewelry, and tools are all displayed to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples.

Many of the cases appear to be very crowded, as a large percentage of the total collection is on view. In some instances the 'displays' are essentially visible storage. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. There are often small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator,  which are very revealing. Other information was written onto objects and we also have more modern large display labels in most cases. More contemporary interpretative displays are on offer in our special temporary exhibitions.

What is on Show in the Museum?object of the month

Ethnographic and archaeological objects are on permanent display in the three floors of displays in the museum and include the following:

Pacific island objects, including a magnificent Tahitian mourner's costume, collected during Captain Cook's Second Voyage in 1773-74; Hawaiian feather cloaks in brilliant shades of red and yellow; a wide range of hand-woven textiles and looms; a collection of ceremonial brasses and ivories from the Kingdom of Benin; a fine group of early masks worn by actors in Japanese Noh dramas; more masks from Africa, Melanesia and North America; sculpture from all over the world in wood, pottery, metal and stone; boats, ranging from full-sized sailing craft to model canoes; baskets in all possible shapes and sizes; pottery from Africa and the Americas, including many pre-Columbian pieces; costumes from North America including Inuit fur parkas, Plains skin shirts decorated with porcupine quills, painted coats from the Northeastern Woodlands and a range of decorated moccasins; magic objects including amulets and charms; jewelry and body decoration; locks and keys; tools and weapons; musical instruments.

These interactive web pages allow virtual visitors to explore and manipulate 360 degree photographic panoramas of the Museum interior .