Sunday, June 21, 2009


Iranian "Demon Helmet."

Been thinking about college lately. Remembering this and that. After the first couple of months, I pretty much went my own way. Read what I wanted, researched what I wanted, talked to people I was interested in. Looking back, apparently there were lots of soon-to-be famous people around me. Most of whom I missed. My nose for fame, running on one nostril even then. Andrew Sullivan and Niall Ferguson, just to name two who're getting lots of media attention now, that I never even noticed then. 

But it got me wondering. Where was I? All those hours and days... where the hell was I? And then I remembered one place. 

Perhaps the greatest place in the world.


People talk about fabulous museums, but Pitt-Rivers kicked all their asses. Why? Well for starters, it was complete chaos. Ok, they had lots of glass cases with stuff formally being displayed in 'em. But I'm not sure I ever saw a staff person. And truth was, the stuff just overwhelmed the cases. There were 500,000 items, gathered for "archaeological and ethnographic" purposes. And those 500,000 items were strewn across multiple buildings - out-buildings and sheds, unused upper floors, rain coming in some places so stuff under tarps, others coated in dust.

So often what you'd find were items strewn about. Across tables and benches, sticking out of boxes and bins, stuck into corners, hidden upstairs behind curtains, falling apart, jammed in on top of one another, broken. Even in the main building, you'd find them toppling over in unlocked glass display cabinets, doors swinging open. Or... ummm... easily opened.

I guess what I want to say is that
Pitt-Rivers put a premium on accessibility. Meaning, unsupervised young people could pick stuff up, have sword-fights with it, try it on, carry it back to their rooms to show buds. Interact. 

It was like the stuff wanted to be touched.

Ok. The stuff proper. It's possible that people swung shrunken heads around. Like soap on a rope. Samurai armour could have been tried on and Samurai swords which happened to not be bolted down could've been swung about. Tested. Try on an ancient mask from Benin? Why not. Stylin' in that Native Chief's leather shirt from the plains.

Algerian Trepanation Tools.

Just look at
this stuff.

How did they get all the stuff? That was the best part. Near as I could figure, Pitt-Rivers was a dumping ground for stuff hauled back from across the British Empire. Prizes. Riches. Amazing artifacts.


"Punitive Mission to Benin?" We got the masks. "Nuer prophet captured?" We got his holy wisk.  Stuff from Captain Cook, Leakey, Petrie, Tylor, Balfour - names you'd know. Stuff from 1,000 unknown archaeologists and ethnographers... 400 Army and Navy men... 300 missionaries... 500 colonial civil servants... and medics and natural historians and antiquarians.

Another thing I loved was how it was organized. Not by chronology. Not by geography. But by... function. You could find a table, and spread across it would be "Items used for fire-starting." Coming from peoples all over the world, stretching across centuries, millennia. Which - once you see them that way - sets off really interesting sparks in the brain. Or messes you up. Depending.

They're fixing it up now, which is a good thing, 'cause it's got cool stuff. And giving lots of things back. Ok, I've kinda danced around that bit, but "human remains." There were a lot of those. From Australia and New Zealand and North America. Tom would bloody well not be amused.

New Guinea "Bound" Head.

And they're also doing a good job now of admitting they don't know who gave them a lot of the stuff, or how it got there:

"More than one third of the Museum’s collections are archaeological. Many have been excavated on archaeological digs, with the object locations properly recorded. However, some have a more hazy history. For some objects acquired in the early days of the Museum, we know little about their provenance. It is even possible that some could have been looted from an archaeological site to be sold on the antiquities market."

What they've got on-line now is one of those really cool 360 degree "explore" tools. You just go here, and pick a floor, a section, and dive in. Zoom in, turn on, spin yourself round 'til you get as disoriented as some half-out-of-their-mind young person back in the early '80's, and then... let the world tumble in. So many things. So many peoples. So many times. So many worlds. 

Looking back, I'm happy, thinking about how I spent all that time. At Pitt-Rivers. Maybe I shoulda been networking. But instead, I got a chance to look at the world, at the very best loot the world has ever produced, and to put it together for myself.


Nuer Prophet's Wisk.


Miguel de los Sueños Jones said...

Cool virtual tour. I love all that 'loot' stored up on the ceiling. Your description reminded me of a visit paid to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens about 20 years ago. Gigantic room after room of stuff everywhere, largely unlabeled, and not many guards. I guess they figured all the good stuff was all ready resting in the British and German museums. On my list of things to do next trip that direction.

Billy Glad said...

The Pergamon Museum. The Germans stole a Greek temple and other massive artifacts from the Middle East and built a museum around them. When we visited the museum, we were struck by the absence of street lights in the museum area.

quinn the eskimo said...

Pergamon looks amazing. But what gall these guys had, eh? It'd be like taking the Lincoln memorial and erecting it in Beijing. Pitt-Rivers had endless amounts of everyday, personal "things" too. Barrels full of stuff - clothes and shoes and kitchen utensils and teeth and on and on. It really gave you a sense of the way members of the Empire work their new turf. They'll snatch the high points, but they're also happy to ask you for your teeth, your daughter, a picture of your dead son. It is just not in them to be able to imagine the situation reversed.

Maybe we should start up a fake list, of all the cultural high-points we'd REALLY hate to see our future conquerers take. We could include everything ugly in the country. Like Vegas. We should tell them it's a holy city and brings great luck to whoever has it within their borders. Move all those crappy pyramids and temples on to the next country.

quinn the eskimo said...

So Billy... what're the chances we get a pic of you in one of these Iranian Demon Helmets? I think it'd be appropriate, given current events and all.

Tom Manoff said...

Dr.Quinn- now known as "Pitt River Man?"

GirlfromtheBronx said...

Billy, you got to go to the Pergamon! Wow! That's one of my disappointments about the time I spent in East Berlin. In fact, at the time, a friend of mine knew one of the curators but I just never had the time to take advantage of it.