Wednesday, September 03, 2014

visiting victoria's secrets

No visit to England would be complete without a float on the Thames and a meander through one of the country's splendid Victorian museums.

So, that is what we did yesterday.  On each of my prior visits, Julian has introduced me to new sections of Abingdon.  The Thames was yesterday's theme.

We often forget that a lot of towns grew up around rivers because the water was a primary form of transport and trade.  As a result, a town's civic life thrived on these liquid highways.

Between Oxford and Abingdon, the river is now mainly a thing of recreation and beauty.  As a result, the long boat we took to Oxford is simply a tourist plaything.  The rush of contemporary life has sped past these ancient boats.  The two-hour float is a method to slip back into a slower pace of life.

The Thames seems like a very still river.  That is primarily the result of a series of locks that tamed the river's natural rapids.  The locks are not a new phenomenon.  Because the river was so important to commerce, the medieval monarchs installed a series of locks that essentially created long lakes on the river -- lakes that also act as a flood control system.

But the boat ride was only part one of the day's journey.  When we arrived in Oxford, we hiked over to the Pitt Rivers Museum. 

In my years of visiting Oxford, I had never visited this Victorian grandmother's closet of natural history.  It is a wonder to behold.  And truly a product of its times.

Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers was one of those fascinating characters who populated Victorian Britain.  A military man, he took an avid interest in archaeology -- and changed its methodology.

He was a collector.  Not in the sense of Addison Mizner who collected merely to collect.  Pitt Rivers was fascinated with the history of humans and their condition.  He snatched up pieces of culture throughout the world -- and then systematically categorized them.

To our modern eyes, some of those categories seem a bit eccentric.  Such as "Items Related to Death."  In the process, though, he took archaeology from grave robbery to the scientific method.

Even the Victorian building that houses the collection betrays its logical, industrial structures.  The shape of dinosaur bones are reflected in the iron bones of the ceiling.

And, yes, there are dinosaurs.  Many of them unearthed in Oxfordshire or other surrounding counties.

But there is also a much-beloved display of the famously extinct Dodo.

I always thought the bird was wiped out as a source of human food -- a perfect example of man's direct destruction of his environment.  In fact, I am almost certain that is what I was taught in school.

But that is not what happened. 
It turns out that humans could not eat the birds due to their foul taste.  Instead, the birds were wiped out by other animals brought to Mauritius by Europeans.  Rather than a story of direct destruction, it is an even more ominous one of secondary extinction.

Some f the more interesting exhibits are not housed in cases.

At first, I thought this was an exotic bird display.  Julian and I could not quite figure out if she was simply another example of English eccentric exercise or if she was on her way to work.The heart of the collection is in the back of the building -- a three-tiered jumble of cases and drawers that would warm the heart of Indiana Jones.  Some of the pieces would have made perfect movie props.

Such as this severed and preserved head of an enemy used as a ceremonial tool.  Note the small hand-written card cataloging the piece along with the number on the forehead.  What could be more Victorian than that?

Or this shrunken head with its well-coiffed wig.

Pitt Rivers also collected folk art.  Quite a bit of it from Africa.  Such as this Ikam masquerade mask that was thought too African for European collectors and too European for African buyers.

Being a military man, Pitt Rivers devoted one full tier to weaponry. 

He had a true affection for guns.  No British collection would be complete without a Walther PP.  Even though it was German-made, this is the gun that Ian Fleming eventually placed in 007's hand.  (I'll bet you are humming the Monty Norman theme right now.)

For those of you who are not fond of guns, the exhibit reminds us that humans have been committing mayhem on each other long before Samuel Colt put equalizers into their hands.  And they can sometimes be things of beauty.

Close up, this Pacific islands club looks like a piece of art -- almost like some fort of exotic nut.  But it is a death-dealing weapon.

This bird-shaped battle axe is even more beautiful.  And just as deadly.

But, for ancient weapons, I found this spear to be the most fascinating.  Each of its multiple points is a human bone.  But, unlike the shrunken heads, these bones were from honored family members of the spear carrier.  The belief was that the deceased member's spirit would strike a true blow.

To make the blows more efficient, the bone points were smeared with poison.  Years of experience created a series of rules on how this mini-WMD was to be carried -- to minimize self-inflicted wounds or prevent, as we would say, friendly fire casualties.

I would be most remiss if I did not share every young person's favorite exhibit in museums of this nature.  

Mummies.  Well, one mummy.  Julian told me the museum had several.  There had been an outcry of political correctness against displaying the dead in such Barnum-style exhibits that the number has been limited to this rather mundane example.  Mundane or not, it is better than none.

Even more so than most museums, Pitt Rivers is not a place to be fully consumed with one visit.  In the afternoon we were there, we barely scratched the surface.  And, considering the warnings on that spear, it may have been a good thing.

This is the type of museum that needs to be visited repeatedly -- similar to the Smithsonian.  When I return, I intend to stick with one display case and its associated drawers.  There are hours of experience just waiting to be enjoyed.

It was not until I was writing this piece that I realized we had a full river day.  Partly on the Thames.  Partly in the Pitt Rivers.

And both were fun.  Especially, when shared with a friend.


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