Introduction to the displays

decorative imageThe Museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects from all parts of the world. It was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the 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. The collection includes extensive photographic and sound archives which contain early records of great importance. The Museum continues to collect through donations, bequests, special purchases and through its staff and students, in the course of their fieldwork.

Some key dates in the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum - Coming soon (facebook)

Details of events associated with the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum from 1800. (research site)

What is in the Museum?

Permanent displays in the Museum are ethnographic and archaeological and include the following:

Pacific island objects, including a magnificent Tahitian mourner's costume, collected during Captain Cook's Second Voyage in 1773-74; Hawaiian feather cloaks in brilliant shades of red and yellow; a wide range of handwoven textiles and looms; a collection of ceremonial brasses and ivories from the Kingdom of Benin; a fine group of early masks worn by actors in Japanese Noh dramas; more masks from Africa, Melanesia and North America; sculpture from all over the world in wood, pottery, metal and stone; boats, ranging from full-sized sailing craft to model canoes; baskets in all possible shapes and sizes; pottery from Africa and the Americas, including many pre-Columbian pieces; costumes from North America including Inuit fur parkas, Plains skin shirts decorated with porcupine quills, painted coats from the Northeastern Woodlands and a range of decorated moccasins; magic objects including amulets and charms; jewellery and body decoration; locks and keys; tools and weapons; musical instruments.

Type of Display

dragonIn most ethnographic and archaeological museums the displays are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. Here they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed in groups to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. The cases appear to be very crowded, as a very large percentage of the collection is on view. In some instances the 'displays' are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. The small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, are very revealing. We offer more contemporary interpretative displays in our special exhibition gallery.

Have a look at the Displays

These interactive web pages allow virtual visitors to explore and manipulate 360 degree photographic panoramas of the Museum interior . They are constructed from hundreds of high quality images and will be updated regularly. In the future they will allow web browsers to link to further information about the Museum’s diverse displays.