Thursday, 15 November 2012

Where are the shrunken heads?


Subdued lighting, old glass cases, original labelling, a huge totem pole stretching three stories high and masses upon masses of objects...my initial introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford was overwhelming.  So much stuff to see...where do I start?  I began to panic...I only had a few hours...how would I see everything?  "You have three floors to get through" laughed my husband on seeing my confusion.  If only we had spent less time in the Natural History Museum (you enter through it to get to the Pitts Rivers).  But the glass ceilings, dinosaur bones, crystal rocks, taxidermy and fossils had entranced us.  'You can touch these!'  I had found myself repeating, as we came across exhibits with signs that invited visitors to lay hands on them.  "Oh!  The Paviland 'Lady!  I'd forgot this was here!"  I gasped delightedly, feeling like I had found an old friend.  "Quick...pretend you are putting your hand in the dinosaur's mouth and I will take a picture"I gabbled like a child.

Eventually, I had found my way to the other side of the huge room and crossed the portal from modern museum to Victorian display...and the effect was mesmerising.  The contrast between the light airy museum which I had travelled through, into the dark, delightfully crowded vista of floor I found myself gazing down upon was intoxicating.  After my initial wobbling about where to begin, I decided to surrender to the beautiful madness of it all and I found myself meandering between the exhibits not bothering about an organised route.  A glimpse of a curious display from the corner of my eye would decide me which case I was to visit next.  Unlike most other ethnographic and archaeological museums where the items are gathered together in geographical or cultural areas, I found objects collated under type.   Case upon case was filled with items gathered together under common themes...death, fire, treatment of enemies, masks, textiles, jewellery, tools and on and on.  Each showed how the same problems have been solved at different times by different people.  Egyptian objects were not grouped together under 'ancient Egypt' but interspersed with other cultures and with other time periods to show how 'writing' evolved, or 'death' was interpreted or 'masks' were used.  The effect was initially confusing but then refreshing and I quickly got the hang of it all.

"Oh!  They have shrunken heads here!" I remembered.  "Where are they?" I scanned the room as much as I was able considering it was full of stuff.  The Husband finally found them and I stood there amongst excited children, all of us intrigued by the minute faces and impossibly long hair.  I read how they had been created (Brains and skulls removed, eyes and mouth sewed up, skin dried out and shrunk with hot pebbles and then filled with stones to 'shape' the skin...just so you know!) and felt slightly sorry for these long dead poor souls who now spend their eternity being gawped at in a less than flattering state.  Not for long was I sad though for other wonders caught my eye and I was off again on a treasure trail of curiosity.

Two hours later and I had only touched on the collection.  It needs many visits to see the vast amount of objects but that is the delight of the Pitts Rivers...you know you will come back again and again.  Exhausted but delighted with the experience, I stood at the entrance looking back across the sea of exhibits and chuckled quietly to myself as a group of girls walked in and asked the gallery assistant "Where are the shrunken heads?"
















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