Friday, October 19, 2012

Rivers Run Through It

A whole month without blogging - oops. Ah well, the Grotesque Grand Tour is over and I'm back in Australia, so there should be more regular updates now. Especially since I have at least six months worth of material in travel pics alone.

So much cool stuff. So many museums. I got quite overexcited. So did my camera; it actually overheated a few times. Then of course there were all the things I couldn't photograph, because it was forbidden, or the light was bad, or some corpulent tourist got in the way. I'll try to remember those...

Speaking of grand tours, this trip has made me think about the practice of traveling, and what it means to go somewhere primarily to look and explore: to traverse new spatial and cultural landscapes with your body/eyes.

There is always that danger of framing the people and places you visit as pure spectacle - viewing foreign cultures as objects of entertainment and mystery, reducing their human complexity in favour of sheer Otherness. Generally being a bit of an ass. I hope I haven't done this. But it seems difficult to avoid sometimes, even if you try. Especially through a camera lens.

This trip has also made me think about earlier examples of this practice: the grand tours taken by nineteenth century gentlemen, colonials and other privileged white folk. These were wealthy individuals with money to spare. In addition to exploring and gazing, they actively collected items from all around the world, developing their own personal museums.

A few of these collections still exist. I visited some in London, including the Huntarian Museum, the Wellcome Collection, and the Cuming Museum. One of my favourites was the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, which has everything from shrunken heads to playing cards and hand guns.

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 [Oxford] University. The General's founding gift contained more than 18,000 objects but there are now over half a million. Many were donated by early anthropologists and explorers."

Here is the main man himself, Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900):


Dapper as hell.

As soon as you enter the Pitt Rivers, you notice how different it is to a typical museum space. Objects from different cultures and historical periods are bundled together in cases, grouped and piled under various general categories. The result is an overwhelming, ecstatic muddle that resembles a series of curiosity cabinets, rather than a 'serious' scientific or educational arrangement. In this way it replicates the mode of presentation that was popular in General Pitt River's time.

Yes I am incapable of taking a straight photograph. Whatever, man. Embrace the incline.

The collection includes children's toys from all over the world, some of which are relatively familiar...

...while others are a trifle different. According to the label, this tiny monkey skull was given to children in Borneo to prepare them for head hunting as adults.

My parents never gave me gifts like this. So unfair.

Ceremonial jewelry is on display as well. Most made from animal horns, claws, teeth and other body parts.

A nice selection of mummified birds, which were apparently kept and/or worn for good luck in various cultures.

In addition to the main museum floor, upper galleries run around the perimeter of the hall and are accessible via stairs. The highest gallery hosts a weapons collection, which is presented in a roughly historical progression from medieval swords and chainmail to more contemporary firearms.

My favourite pieces on this floor (and perhaps the whole museum) are those that make use of an animal's natural defenses, such as this helmet and war belt - both from Kiribati (Gilbert islands) in Micronesia, before 1878.

The war belt is made from spiky stingray skin. More generally, as the museum explains, "stingrays have been put to good defensive use in Kiribati. The razor-sharp barbs from the ray's tail were often used as wete (daggers) by the islanders, some even hiding them in the thatch of their homes to ward off intruders."

Likewise, the helmet is made from the skin of a porcupine fish, with its spines acting as a protective barrier around the head.

Also in this case is a breastplate from Southern Egypt, made prior to 1874, crafted from horned crocodile back plates. (Really reminds me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I always knew they were real. And not this crappy kind of real.)

I spent so long at this exhibit, the staff got suspicious and sent a security type person to sit near it.

Last but not least: the death cabinets, where various mutilated skulls and shrunken heads are gathered under the heading 'Treatment of Dead Enemies.'

Unusual to see this kind of artifact, much less a whole variety in together. It's really difficult to resist the spectacle offered here, even though it actively builds a sense of exoticism and draws on privileged modes of looking.

As a living relic of the Victorian era, Pitt Rivers offers a fascinating insight into the history of museums, exploration and collecting. I'd definitely recommend a visit, if you are ever nearby.

Then afterwards you can go to the natural history museum and visit my favourite bird.

Love that face.

1 comment:

  1. That bird is ... Creepy. It's probably the creepiest exhibit.