Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cabinets of Curiosity

I took the grandchildren over to Oxford today. They've both been pestering me to see some some dinosaurs but the Natural History Museum in London, in August, during the school holidays, is horrible. It gets so packed with people that there are queues for everything, even to get inside the door. So I went to calm, placid Oxford instead to visit the University Museum and the Pitt Rivers Collection instead.

The University Museum has had a bit of a revamp in recent years and now boasts a T Rex skeleton, a Velociraptor, an Iguanodon, a Triceratops skull and lots of other dinosaur bits and pieces; certainly enough to get several wows and whoops from the tinies. I have a bit of a Trilobite fetish myself and the museum has a good collection of some of the more bizarre species including 'The Toasting Fork'. There's also Alice's Dodo, the badly-made and overly chubby reconstruction that has blighted every representation of the Dodo ever since (in reality, they were much slimmer) it was stuffed. It was the specimen that inspired Lewis Carroll to include the character in his story.

I loved the way that the museum staff cunningly replaced the head of a Struthiomimus that needs some repair. Barely noticeable.

After a good look around (and there's lots for kids to do in there with activity areas and 'feely' pods where you can caress a cheetah, stroke a snake and fondle a fruitbat), we wandered through the connecting door into Britain's creepiest museum - the Pitt Rivers Collection.

The Pitt Rivers is a collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects from all parts of the world. It 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. The General's founding gift contained more than 18,000 objects but there are now over half a million.

What makes the place creepy, however, is the dim lighting; the whole place is dark, like twilight - the staff will issue you with a wind-up torch if you ask - to preserve the exhibits. And on the floor there are rows upon rows of cabinets, each containing a collection of related objects. In one there are flutes and whistles, in another death masks, in yet another shrunken heads.There are mummies and rifles, Samurai costumes and penis sheaths, fertility talismans, throwing axes, canoes, fishing poles ... the list is as endless as it is eclectic. I love the place and the artefacts are a constant source of inspiration.

It's quite hard to take decent photos without a tripod (flash is not allowed). So I spent some time experimenting with ISO, shutter speeds etc. and eventually got some passable photos. I then colour-corrected them to take off the yellow cast they'd picked up. Here's what they all looked like before:

An interesting day and great fun for the kids. I heartily recommend it.

1 comment:

Andrew Kerr said...

One of the places I'd love to take my children one day. Great blog about your visit.