Say the words “natural history museum” to most people and what they actually hear will be closer to “boring dusty dead things”. The Oxford Natural History Museum doesn’t have this problem for two reasons. First, it is a remarkable collection presented in a stunning building, and second, it includes the Pitt Rivers Collection.
Any place that helped inspire Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is almost by definition not boring. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (who wrote Alice under the pen name Lewis Carroll) was a regular visitor to the museum and the specimens he saw there inspired several of the book’s anthropomorphized characters.
Sir Henry Acland, an Oxford professor of medicine, was responsible for creating the museum in 1855. Acland believed the university was too focussed on philosophy, history, and theology to the detriment of science and the natural world. The museum was his way of correcting this oversight. The neo-gothic design with its soaring iron and glass arches frames the specimens in a way that makes them seem stately and dignified.
Where the Natural History Museum exhibits items “from the hand of God”, the Pitt Rivers Collection, which occupies a space nearly as large at the back of the museum, features items from the hand of man. And where the Natural History Museum feels spacious and airy, the Pitt Rivers Collection is claustrophobic, with overflowing display cases jammed so close to together that it’s difficult to move between them.
It’s a bit overwhelming to dive into the displays. Everywhere you turn there are fascinating artifacts. In one direction is an enormous collection of pikes, halberds, and pole axes, while over there is a case labelled “Treatment of Enemies” that contains several shrunken heads. The latter are fascinating because they come from a time when simply killing your enemy wasn’t enough, you had to possess and shrink their head to truly win. Which is perhaps bad news for those of us hoping that we’d hit bottom in our current fractious political discourse.