It’s so stimulating to achieve a museum visit that reinforces the power of the real. Much as I promote how digitizing collections and getting them on the web is encouraging people to come and see the real thing, it still gives me a buzz to find a museum full of visitors all seriously engaged and clearly enjoying looking at real objects.
Such a place is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum. Despite living in Oxford for three years I had never been to either which I now much as they are both museums that would repay many repeat visits. The Museum of Natural History is housed in a wonderful Victorian Gothic building opened in 1860, with the main display area being the Great Court. This is a cathedral like space with a glass roof supported by cast iron columns and surrounded by four arcades in the form of a cloister. It is a space that immediately makes one want to be there, a real intake of breath place – I liken it to the new central court at the British Museum. How important is that in museum design! Beautifully designed exhibits and lots of real objects to touch from fossils to stuffed birds and animals. Kids everywhere, and not just in school groups, i.e. they had dragged their parents along for a further visit.
Off the back of the Great Court opens the Pitt Rivers Museum. I had read about the redo this has recently had in museum journals, but on first site you would not know it. No glitzy well lit new showcases, in fact no well lit anything – it is all kept dark for reasons of conservation, so much so that torches are provided at the information desk! The Museum was founded in 1884 when Augustus Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the University’s archaeology and anthropology departments who gave his collection of 20,000 objects to the University. One of his gift conditions was that the objects should be displayed by how they were made or used rather than by age or cultural origin. The collection has now grown to more than half a million artefacts, and it feels like most of it is on display. The showcases are packed solid with objects many with the original tiny hand written labels. It goes against all that modern museological thinking promotes – there is no start or finish, no story to follow – but it certainly works. Again the museum was full of people peering into the depths of dark showcases. Why? Because of the drawing power and fascination of the real.
It’s an exhilarating eye opener to why people continue to visit museums – and more on that in my next blog.
25 years ... and 25 iconic projects
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