Dark, quiet, and tucked away behind the dinosaur skeletons, taxidermy, and excited children of the neighbouring Natural History Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum is full of what white Westerners have historically termed ‘curiosities’ and are now often recognised as ‘colonial spoils’. This useum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, ethnologist, archaeologist, and collector.
The Museum’s History
If you have ever been to the Pitt Rivers Museum, you will know that it is quite an experience. Dark, quiet, and tucked away behind the dinosaur skeletons, taxidermy, and excited children of the neighbouring Natural History Museum, it is full of what white Westerners have historically termed ‘curiosities’ and are now often recognised as ‘colonial spoils’. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, ethnologist, archaeologist, and collector who saw a short period of military action during the Crimean War (only about a month). As a result of this and his social position, most of his ranks were purchased as a status symbol.
During his time travelling abroad, he became fascinated with weapons and began to collect numerous objects from various countries and cultures. Determined to demonstrate how objects could be used in the study of ‘cultural evolution’, he donated his collection of over 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford in exchange for the establishment of a permanent lectureship in anthropology; it has been open to students, researchers, and the public ever since. According to the website, over 430,000 people visit it each year.
With this historical context, it is clear that the museum exists because of direct ties to the processes of colonization and imperialism. Although he collected some items himself, the majority of Pitt-Rivers’ collection was acquired second-hand from auctioneers who sold items in England from field collectors involved with the European imperial project. Other collections donated to the museum have been directly sourced from the empire. An example is the museum’s Naga collection, put together by field collectors James Phillip Mills and John Henry Hutton, who were both colonial administrators in the Indian Civil Service. Indeed, research by Alison Petch, a museum staff member, shows that (from what records exist) most field collectors were archaeologists, colonial servants, members of the army, or travelling for missionary purposes.
The museum also fits into a wider imperial knowledge landscape. Geographers Felix Driver and David Gilbert (1998) have written about London’s role as an imperial city during the 19th and 20th centuries, pointing out that an important imperial centre was South Kensington and its museums (now the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Science Museum and The Natural History Museum). It was in these spaces, they argue, that the imperial archive – the institutional collection and cataloguing of information gathered from the empire – was performed as a vital part of the Victorian quest for the universalisation of knowledge. Oxford’s museums – the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers, and the Museum of Natural History – are an echo of these spaces, especially when considered alongside the role the University of Oxford played in establishing and maintaining Britain’s empire.
So what does a museum of anthropology and ethnography contain? They have a sound archive, and an enormous collection of writings and photographs, but the main body of what is on display to the public is material culture – physical items. These objects can be either very important or incredibly mundane to the communities from which they come. One member of the Haida Nation who was involved in a research project with members of the Pitt Rivers Museum said:
“Now everything’s looked on and it’s art. We’re told not to touch certain things. To think, five hundred years ago, it was lying around a house.”
In contrast, the Museum also holds things of great sacred significance – visits from people who are members of “source communities” have identified religious and ritual items which have both historic and contemporary importance, and should never have ended up in a museum.
The museum, therefore, acts as a site of colonial control and order. By putting aspects of people’s lives and cultures in glass cases (and in some cases, human remains themselves) and reducing them to the purpose of things to be looked at (by the predominantly white Western gaze) the museum necessarily creates a Self-Other binary. As a space, it also works to neutralise the traumatic and violent histories imposed on colonised societies and communities by the West. The labels denoting the origins and histories of the objects in the museum does little to make this apparent. The casual viewer, without an in-depth understanding of the history of colonization and empire, would not be able to link, situate, and contextualise the objects in the places, stories, and trajectories they have come from and become intertwined in, through forced movement.
I am not arguing against cross-cultural educational exchange. The Pitt Rivers Museum is currently at the beginning of its efforts to address its history, and it in the process of undertaking “a comprehensive review of our displays and programming from an ethical perspective, considering how they acknowledge their sometimes-difficult, entangled histories, [to] present multi-vocal and critical narratives about these histories”, and having conversations about ownership, rights, and cultural appropriation. An early example is curator Laura Peers’ attempt to reconnect cuttings of hair taken by 1920s anthropologist Beatrice Blackwood with the Ojibwe Nation people to whom they belonged. In her article, she illustrates the oppressive and violent context supposedly “harmless” objects actually came from, and highlights that cut hair is meant to be destroyed in Ojibwe culture, as it could be used to harm the person from which it came. The hair samples are still in residence in Oxford.
How, then, can the Pitt Rivers de-colonise its collections? The case of the conversation with the Ojibwe nation does represent a shift towards more dialogue around issues of representation and (de)colonization in Oxford’s museums. Other efforts are ongoing. During 2019, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the History of Science Museum collaborated on a project entitled Multaka-Oxford, which worked with volunteers from refugee communities to curate different understandings of and events around collections of Islamic scientific instruments and fabric samples. From 2017, there has also been the ongoing Living Cultures project with Tanzanian participatory-video activist group Oltoilo le Maa and the Pitt Rivers Museum. This project was sparked by a visit from the Director of Oltoilo le Maa, Samwel Nangiria, who was shocked at the way cultural objects were displayed as though his culture no longer existed. The project centres around finding ways to change this state of affairs, focusing on self-representation of living cultures and museums as sites of social reparation. There was a recent livestream from the project, which you can access here. The collaboration is ongoing into this year. Similar collaborations have been on-going with a delegation from the Maasai culture this year.
What would the decolonization of the Pitt Rivers Museum look like? Importantly, it should not be a metaphor. Decolonization, as warned by scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, is about concrete actions like repatriation and physically interrupting the actions of settlers and empires. It is not just talking or making claims about wider social justice projects. The Pitt Rivers is absolutely beginning this process, but it still has a significant way to go. To fully decolonize an institution with such an imperial, violent heritage, conversations must be had with all the peoples from which the objects came, all requests for repatriation should be honoured, and every attempt to build an anthropological museum based on relationships of equal exchange, respect, and connection should be made.
Written by Eliza Ader
Further Sources on Decolonization & Museums
Museum Detox Collective – find their blog here.
Elisa Shoenberger’s article is a useful basic introduction – find it here. There are other good news articles available on the Internet.
 Petch, A. (2004) ‘Collecting Immortality: the Field Collectors who Contributed to the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, 16: 127-139.
 Driver, F. & Gilbert, D. (1998) ‘Heart of Empire? Landscape, Space and Performance in Imperial London’, Environment and Planning: Society and Space, 16(1): 11-28.
 See the University’s Oxford and Empire project: https://oxfordandempire.web.ox.ac.uk/home. Also see Richard Symonds’ chapter ‘Oxford and the Empire’ in The History of the University of Oxford, Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2.
 In Krmpotich, C. & Peers, L. (2013) This is Our Life: Haida Material Heritage and Changing Museum Practise, Vancouver, UBC Press.
 A term used by museums to denote peoples from whom their objects have come from.
 Pitt Rivers Museum Strategic Plan, 2017 to 2022, p. 13.
 Peers, L. (2003) ‘Strands Which Refuse to Be Braided: Hair Samples from Beatrice Blackwood’s Ojibwe Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum’, Journal of Material Culture, 8(1): 75-96.
 Tuck, E. & Wayne Yang, K. (2012) ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, 1(1): 1-40.