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Pitt Rivers Museum

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

The museum was founded in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who donated his 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 original donation consisted of approximately 20,000 items, which have now grown to 500,000 items, many of which have been donated by travellers, scholars and missionaries.

The museum's collection is arranged thematically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. This layout owes a lot to the theories of General Pitt Rivers himself, who intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from simple to complex. While this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer accepted in archaeology and anthropology, the museum has retained the original organisation of the displays, which celebrate cultural diversity. 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.

The museum has an incredibly high density of objects on display, and the displays are regularly changed.

In 2004, the museum received £3,700,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build a research annexe 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.

The second phase of development began on July 7, 2008 necessitating the closure of the museum and galleries until early Spring 2009. In this work, the 1960s exhibition gallery will be dismantled, restoring the original view through to the Museum’s totem pole. Original display cases will be returned to their original place at the front of the Museum. The space upstairs vacated by these cases will provide additional space for a Clore Duffield Education Centre. A new entrance platform will be constructed, allowing visitors to enter on the same level as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and improved access for wheelchair users and parents with pushchairs. The entrance platform will also provide re-located shop and reception areas. An environmental control system will also be installed.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, won The Guardian Family Friendly Museum of 2005.


  • 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.

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