Visit date: 14th October 2012

Weather: Sunny


This field trip was intended to make us think about the different ways in which museums can tell a story about the objects they display, and to highlight any evidence for the archaeological theory we had been studying in the choices made as to how information is presented. Much of the material here is from my notes taken at the time as I recorded my impressions of the museums.

Pitt Rivers Museum

Site Overview

The display cases of the Pitt Rivers museum, October 2012. Copyright author

Figure 1: The display cases of the Pitt Rivers museum, October 2012. Copyright K Bragg

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford was founded in 1884, based on the, largely anthropological, collections of General Augustus Land Fox Pitt Rivers of Cranborne Chase (Petch 1998 :77) and is known worldwide for its typological approach to the display of artefacts (Gosden & Larson 2007:107).  Pitt Rivers was keen to point out the relationship he perceived between Natural History and its long-recognised need to classify its subject matter, and the ethnographic specimens which he collected, which, he argued, should also be classifiable in a scientific manner (Gosden & Larson 2007:107). Underpinning his argument is an unspoken assumption that form and function are intrinsically related and a typology imposed upon the material is somehow internal to the objects and not external like the geographical distinctions he disdained (Gosden & Larson 2007:110).

The General was intent on displaying not only his collections, but his ideas about archaeology and anthropology; the negotiations regarding the opening of this museum set out clearly his intent and the conditions under which he would provide his collections (Larson 2007) and his stipulation of the appointment of a lecturer in anthropology greatly assisted the study of this subject at Oxford (Gosden & Larson 2007:38). His choice of destination for his collections reflected the desire to retain a degree of control over how the material would be displayed, and to achieve intellectual and political goals. He believed that the demonstration of the continuity of ideas and development would discourage revolutionary thinking amongst the Victorian poor (Chapman 1982 :266).


The majority of the collection was obtained at second hand, through auction houses or by procurement from other collectors (Petch 2006: 259), collecting being de rigueur in the 19th century (Petch 1998 :77). This has necessarily meant that information about the provenance of the artefacts is not generally complete and is in some cases restricted to the tags attached to the individual artefacts (Petch 2006 :259), as shown in Figure 2.

Sample of labels from the Pitt Rivers Museum. Source Pitt Rivers Museum Guide Book

Figure 2: Sample of labels from the Pitt Rivers Museum. Source Pitt Rivers Museum Guide Book

As can be seen in Figure 2, the Pitt Rivers Museum is a somewhat dimly-lit room, with additional galleries above, containing an array of display cases, closely-packed. This museum itself is tucked away behind the comparatively bright and airy Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Oxford University Museum of Natural History. October 2012. Copyright author.

Figure 3: Oxford University Museum of Natural History. October 2012. Copyright K Bragg.

Each of the display cases in the Pitt Rivers Museum contains a collection of artefacts grouped together into themes such as textile working, or animal forms in art (shown in Figure 4 below)

Figure 4: Case containing examples of animal forms in art. Oct 2012. Copyright K Bragg.

Figure 4: Case containing examples of animal forms in art. Oct 2012. Copyright K Bragg.

Each of the cases makes no distinction between time and place, only the theme of the case, so that ancient artefacts sit alongside Victorian-era ethnographic material. Embedded in this is an assumption that people perceived as ‘primitive’ in Victorian times were equivalent to those exhibiting similar technological levels, no matter the time period. The idea of evolution and the gradual and inexorable progress from simple to more complex was a recent and influential idea (Bowden 2009 :48), and the Victorian antiquarians related this to the progression of societies from primitive to modern (Pettitt & White 2010). The slightly distasteful adjunct to this theory was that gaps in the knowledge of prehistory could be found in other cultures who had ‘fossilized’ their state of development, being unable to attain the dizzy heights of the Caucasian race as exemplified by Victorian achievements (Van Keuren 1984 :176).

The Museum today doesn’t really present much of the idea of this evolutionary progression of technology and culture, as there is no sense of time represented within the museum. In many ways, this mode of display seems useful to a student of archaeology or anthropology, not for the theoretical basis, but for the broad spread of examples of how a particular task can be performed. However, this may not be of use to the general public in understanding the material and risks being perceived as just an array of ‘things’ and becomes a selection of ‘curiosities’ rather than a means of obtaining information. The underlying culture-historical metanarrative is not perceptible to the general public, as this is never made explicit. There are no real explanations of what the artefacts might mean, nor why they are grouped together other than the obvious categorisation in the naming of the display case. In fact, there is a general impression that the objects stand only for themselves, and any context or biography that they might have had is stripped away, especially where the provenance is unclear. Most items seemed to be labelled but the labels were not always discernable and those that are provide little explanation e.g. Figure 5.

Figure 5: Example of labelling at Pitt Rivers Museum. Oct 2012. Copyright K Bragg.

Figure 5: Example of labelling at Pitt Rivers Museum. Oct 2012. Copyright K Bragg.

Ashmolean Museum

Site Overview

The Ashmolean Museum, like the Pitt Rivers, is based on a founding collection: a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ brought together by the actions of the Tradescents in the earlier 17th Century, and eventually bequeathed to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole. From this collection and later additions, the objects related to Natural History were relocated away to the Natural Science Museum (MacGregor 2001:125), and the ethnographic material was transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886 (MacGregor 2001b:48). Pitt Rivers himself rejected the Ashmolean as a destination for his collection, owing to the perception that it no longer focussed on Natural History and he wanted to tell the story of the Natural History of humanity (Larson 2007).

As the object of this field trip was to compare and contrast the different approaches to displaying archaeological material and to discern the theoretical framework underpinning the design of the museum, not much attention was paid to the individual objects within the museum, more to how they were displayed and what stories the museum was trying to portray to its visitors.

First impressions were that this was a far more formal experience, that the displays had ben carefully thought out and arranged just so, lending an air of authority to them. Walking into the museum was a bit like entering the front door of a stately home and seeing the wonders contained within: there was a sense of theatre to the experience.


Figure 6: The entrance gallery to the museum: elegant statuary and bold colours. Source:

Figure 6: The entrance gallery to the museum: elegant statuary and bold colours. Source:

Further into the museum, the displays became more verbose and more overtly ‘educational’. The museum is divided up into geographical and also temporal sectors, for example a section about ancient Egypt.


Figure 7: A photograph of one of the displays in the Ashmolean. Copyright: author.

Figure 7: A photograph of one of the displays in the Ashmolean. Source: K Bragg.


As can be see in Figure 7 above, compared to the Pitt Rivers museum, more care is being taken to draw the visitor to each artefact and describe what it is thought to be, and its provenance. Note the multi-media enabled display, increasing the accessibility and enhancing the information that can be transmitted. Note also how assured the description is and how little space is given to understanding the meaning of the artefacts: here were are seeing an attempt at an objective, processual, interpretation of these objects, stating just what is thought to be beyond doubt or question.

If we were to question further, we might ask how these ‘facts’ are known to be true and are there any other ways the material can be read. But herein lies the problem with a museum display: you are pitching your message at the general public, with the background knowledge of the general public, who are probably going to be perfectly happy to accept these facts at face value because they have no need to question them. Entering a museum is stepping out of the normal everyday life and looking at strange objects in strange contexts and motivations and levels of interest will vary wildly. Therefore to design a display for maximum benefit to the most number of people would naturally require careful tailoring of the message: consistency and clarity must needs prevail over multiplicity of interpretation and multivocality.


Figure 8: Another display from the Ashmolean. Source: author.

Figure 8: Another display from the Ashmolean. Source: K Bragg.


Figure 8 shows the description of a statue, from this we learn that it is a large specimen and one of several similar (in order to be the largest) and that we know the date and the ‘culture’ that produced it. We learn that it was probably found in a grave. We don’t learn what it might have meant to that culture, or whether these items are only found in graves, or if they are known from other contexts. It is a purely descriptive text, yet we feel we know something more about the artefact as we can assign a series of ‘facts’ to it. As far as the narrative we are given goes, we learn nothing about it beyond its form and apparent function.

Another thought that struck me about the Ashmolean was how each culture and time period was summarised in terms of the main political events, or rulers, or systemic actions that happened. There seemed to be little to say about the detail of everyday life and it felt like a ‘kings and queens’ view of history with no space for ordinary people, only the great and the famous.

The obvious difference between the two approaches to display is that the intent of the Pitt Rivers museum was ostensibly to allow the visitors to make up their own minds and not to point out some fundamental truth (Gosden & Larson 2007:233).  In this way, although the PRM is perhaps culture-historical in its premise, it also has post-processual credentials also, in that multiplicities of interpretations are allowed; although the museum provides a taxonomic framework for the artefacts, the meanings within this are still negotiable, there are no grand narratives writ large as at the Ashmolean.


Bowden, M., 2009. Pitt Rivers: The Life and Archaeological Work of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Cambridge University Press.

Chapman, W.R., 1982. Ethnology in the Museum: A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers (1827–1900) and the Institutional Foundations of British Anthropology. Unpublished D.Phil thesis. University of Oxford.

Gosden, C. & Larson, F., 2007. Knowing Things: Exploring the Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945, Oxford University Press.

Van Keuren, D.K., 1984. Museums and ideology: Augustus Pitt-Rivers, anthropological museums, and social change in later Victorian Britain. Victorian Studies, 28(1), pp.171–189. Available at: [Accessed November 16, 2012].

Larson, F., 2007. Anthropological landscaping: General Pitt Rivers, the Ashmolean, the University Museum and the shaping of an Oxford discipline. Journal of the History of Collections, 20(1), pp.85–100. Available at: [Accessed October 14, 2012].

MacGregor, A., 2001a. The Ashmolean as a museum of natural history, 1683 1860. Journal of the History of Collections, 13(2), pp.125–144. Available at: [Accessed October 14, 2012].

MacGregor, A., 2001b. The Ashmolean Museum: A Brief History of the Museum and Its Collections: A History of the Museum and Its Collections (Ashmolean Handbooks), Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.

Petch, A., 2006. Chance and certitude: Pitt Rivers and his first collection. Journal of the History of Collections, 18(2), pp.257–266. Available at: [Accessed October 14, 2012].

Petch, A., 1998. “Man as he was and man as he is”: General Pitt Rivers’s collections. Journal of the History of Collections, 10(1), pp.75–85. Available at:

Pettitt, P.B. & White, M.J., 2010. Cave men: Stone tools, Victorian science, and the “primitive mind” of deep time. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 65(1), pp.25–42. Available at: [Accessed April 28, 2013].


Written on October 14th, 2012 , Diploma Year One

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Notes from a field