Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum displaying the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford in England.[2] The museum is located to the east of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and can only be accessed through that building.

Pitt Rivers Museum
Interior of Pitt Rivers Museum 2015.JPG
Pitt Rivers Museum interior, 2015
Pitt Rivers Museum is located in Oxford city centre
Pitt Rivers Museum
Pitt Rivers Museum
LocationParks Road, Oxford, England
Coordinates51°45′31″N 1°15′18″W / 51.7586°N 1.2550°W / 51.7586; -1.2550Coordinates: 51°45′31″N 1°15′18″W / 51.7586°N 1.2550°W / 51.7586; -1.2550
TypeUniversity museum of archaeology and anthropology
Visitors468,013 (2019)[1]

The museum was founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers who donated his private collection to the University of Oxford with the condition that a permanent lecturer in anthropology must be appointed. Museum staff are involved in teaching Archaeology and Anthropology at the University even today. The first Curator of the museum was Henry Balfour. A second stipulation in the Deed of Gift was that a building should be provided to house the collection and used for no other purpose. The University therefore engaged Thomas Manly Deane, son of Thomas Newenham Deane who, together with Benjamin Woodward, had designed and built the original Oxford University Museum of Natural History building three decades earlier, to create an adjoining building at the rear of the main building to house the collection. Construction started in 1885 and was completed in 1886.

The original donation consisted of approximately 22,000 items;[3] this has now grown to 500,000 items, many of which have been donated by travellers, scholars and missionaries.

On March 17, 2020, the museum shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic,[4] but re-opened on September 22nd, 2020.[5] The decision was made to remove the shrunken heads previously on display during this closure.[6] The heads had been on display since the 1940s.[7]


The Haida totem pole, from Star House in Massett village on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), Canada

The museum's collection is arranged typologically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. This layout owes a lot to the theories of Pitt Rivers himself, who intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. Whilst this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer fashionable in archaeology and anthropology, the museum has retained the original organisation of the displays. The display of many examples of a particular type of tool or artifact, showing historical and regional variations, is an unusual and distinct feature of this museum.[citation needed] The museum has a high density of objects on display, and the displays are changed periodically.[citation needed]

At 11.36m high the Haida totem pole is the largest object on display in the museum. From a Haida community, it originally stood outside Star House in the village of Old Massett (Haida name Uttewas), on Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. The house was built around 1882 and belonged to chief Anetlas (c.1816–1893). The pole came to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1901.[8]


In 2004, the museum received £3,700,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build a research annex adjoining the museum. Building work was completed in 2007, bringing the academic staff of the museum back to the site, and providing a laboratory for conservation of the specimens. The annex will not affect the Victorian displays of the museum.[citation needed]

The second phase of development began on 7 July 2008 necessitating the closure of the museum and galleries. The museum reopened on 1 May 2009.[9] In this work, the 1960s exhibition gallery was dismantled, restoring the original view through to the museum's totem pole. Original display cases were returned to their original place at the front of the museum. The space upstairs vacated by these cases provides additional space for a Clore Duffield Education Centre. A new entrance platform allows visitors to enter on the same level as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and improves access for wheelchair users and parents with pushchairs. The entrance platform provides re-located shop and reception areas. An environmental control system has also been installed.[citation needed]


The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, won The Guardian newspaper's award for Family Friendly Museum of 2005.[10]

In 2019, the Pitt Rivers Museum was finalist of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.[11]

Colonial legacyEdit

In recent years, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been called sector-leading[12] in its work on decoloniality. Further details can be found on the website.[13]

In September 2020, the Museum announced it has made a number of critical changes to its displays,[14] including the removal from display of human remains and the installation of a new Introductory Case as an intervention in its permanent galleries that engages with the colonial legacy of the Museum. The Museum has also said that it would make changes to the labels to include stories "through the voices of artists and indigenous leaders.[6]

As part of this process the Pitt Rivers Museum is meeting with originating communities to address errors and gaps in the information it stores, and to discuss repatriation.[15] One of these is the Living Cultures initiative, a collaboration between the museum, a Maasai community based campaign group called Oltoilo Le Maa, and community development organisation InsightShare.[16][17]

Notable peopleEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "ALVA - Association of Leading Visitor Attractions". www.alva.org.uk. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  2. ^ "Pitt Rivers Museum". Culture 24, UK. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  3. ^ "Dan Hicks 2013. Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum. In D. Hicks and A. Stevenson (eds) World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford: Archaeopress".
  4. ^ "Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers and other museums SHUT over coronavirus". Oxford Mail. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  5. ^ "Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum to reopen on 22 September 2020". oumnh.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Shrunken heads removed from Pitt Rivers Museum display". BBC. 14 September 2020. Retrieved 24 January 2021.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. ^ "Oxford museum removes 'racist' shrunken heads from display after 80 years". www.theartnewspaper.com. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  8. ^ "Pitt Rivers Museum: The Haida Totem Pole". Pitt Rivers Museum: The Haida Totem Pole. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  9. ^ Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (29 April 2009). "The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford reopens". The Times. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  10. ^ The Guardian (Tue 5 Jul 2005): 'Kids declare Oxford museum a family favourite'
  11. ^ "Finalists announced for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019". Art Fund.
  12. ^ "Film captures efforts to 'redress historical wrongs' at Pitt Rivers Museum". Museums Association.
  13. ^ "Committed to Change". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  14. ^ "Critical Changes". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  15. ^ Mills, Eleanor (6 February 2019). "Living cultures". Museums Association.
  16. ^ Wall, Amanda S. (4 December 2018). "Maasai Community Members Work to Decolonize Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum". Museum Studies at Tufts University.
  17. ^ Murphy, Adrian (27 November 2018). "Living Cultures: Maasai leaders work with Pitt Rivers Museum to tell their story". Museums + Heritage Advisor.

Further readingEdit

  • Baumgarten, Lothar. Unsettled Objects. Edition of Guggenheim Magazine published in conjunction with the exhibition AMERICA Invention. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1993. (Contains photographic documention of the Pitt Rivers' collection and essays on ethnographic collecting)
  • Chapman, William Ryan. "Arranging Ethnology: A. H. L. F. Pitt Rivers and the Typological Tradition." In Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Edited by George W. Stocking, Jr. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
  • Cranstone, B.A.L. and Steven Seidenberg. The General's Gift: A Celebration of the Pitt Rivers Museum Centenary, 1884–1984. Oxford: JASO, 1984.
  • Hicks, Dan and Alive Stevenson (eds) 2013. World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford: Archaeopress. World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum

External linksEdit