Pitt Rivers Museum
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; -1.2550
TypeUniversity museum of archaeology and anthropology
Visitors468,013 (2019)[1]

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.

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. Edward Burnett Tylor thereby became the first lecturer in anthropology in the UK following his appointment to the post of Reader in Anthropology in 1885.[3] Museum staff are still involved in teaching archaeology and anthropology at the university. 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; this has now grown to more than 500,000 items, many of which have been donated by travelers, scholars, and missionaries.


The exhibition space in the museum's building is a large, rectangular, colonnaded room. It has two mezzanine levels and a massive, vaulted ceiling, and is brimming with glass display cases and exhibits.[4]

The museum's collection is arranged typologically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. 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.[5] This topological layout is based upon Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers' theories; he intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. Although this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer appropriate in the modern display paradigm for archaeological and anthropological objects, the museum has broadly retained the original typological organization due to the Pitt Rivers Deed of Gift which stipulated that any changes to the displays "shall not affect the general principle originated by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers".[6]

As the museum has an extensive collection of objects, those on display are changed periodically.[7]

The museum was closed due to the COVID-19 quarantine. The museum was closed from 17 March 2020[8] to 22 September 2020.[9] During this closure, a decision was made to remove displays of shrunken heads as well as other human remains. The museum's director issued a statement, "Exhibiting Tsantsas (shrunken heads) reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s core values.”[10] The shrunken heads had been on display since the 1940s.[11][12]

The Haida Totem Pole

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

The largest object on display in the museum is the Haida house post, a totem pole, which has a height of 11.36m. It originally stood in front of the Star House in the village of Old Massett (Haida name Uttewas), on Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. The Star House belonged to Chief Anetlas (c.1816–1893); it is thought that the house was constructed in 1882. The pole was purchased by Edward Burnett Tylor and transported to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1901.[13][14][15]

Photo Gallery


Despite the Pitt Rivers being so full as to be "bursting at the seams", designs for a new museum building in the 1960s were never realised.[16]: 41  By 1964, the university wanted to expand the science area onto the Pitts Rivers site and move the museum to a larger plot on Banbury Road.[16]: 41  A round museum was proposed, covering a site larger than the Sheldonian Theatre, the Clarendon Building, and the Bodleian Library combined.[16]: 41  The concept was strongly supported by the museum's curator Bernard Fagg and, after concerted lobbying from Fagg, the university's Standing Committee on Museums and Galleries.[16]: 41  In February 1966, the university greenlit the new museum and promised to keep the Banbury Road site free for three years while funding was arranged.[16]: 43  Several architects were considered for the project including Leslie Martin (who was already working on plans for a new zoology building), Powell & Moya, and Pier Luigi Nervi; Nervi was selected and planning applications were submitted and approved by Oxford City Council in a 32-29 vote.[16]: 43  The new museum needed £4.5 million to cover construction costs and £2.25 million as an endowment.[16]: 43  In May 1968, Fagg suffered a stroke which left him in hospital until the end of the academic year and significantly limited his involvement in fundraising efforts.[16]: 46 [17] By 1970, the campaign had lost momentum, the fundraising committee dissolved, and in September, the university announced the project would be shelved.[16]: 46 

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

A second phase of development began on 7 July 2008 necessitating the closure of the museum and galleries. The museum reopened on 1 May 2009.[18] 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 was built to allow 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 was also installed.[19]


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.[20]

In 2019, the Pitt Rivers Museum was finalist of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.[21]

Colonial legacy

In recent years, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been called sector-leading[22][failed verification] in its work on decoloniality. Further details can be found on the website.[23]

In September 2020, the museum announced it had made a number of critical changes to its displays,[24] 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 changes attracted worldwide attention as they involved the removal of the museum's collection of shrunken heads, which had been on display since the 1940s, citing the reason that "the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s values today".[25][26] The museum has also said that it would make changes to the labels to include stories "through the voices of artists and indigenous leaders".[10]

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.[27] 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.[28][29] Additionally, the museum, together with the Museum of Natural History, returned the remains of 17 Aboriginal Australians to the Australian government in 2022.[4]

Notable people

See also: Category:People associated with the Pitt Rivers Museum

See also


  1. ^ "ALVA – Association of Leading Visitor Attractions". alva.org.uk. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  2. ^ "Pitt Rivers Museum". Culture 24, UK. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  3. ^ "Chisholm, Hugh, (22 Feb. 1866–29 Sept. 1924), Editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica (10th, 11th and 12th editions)", Who Was Who, Oxford University Press, 1 December 2007, doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.u194658, retrieved 3 June 2022
  4. ^ a b Elliott, Tim (8 March 2023). "Mind-boggling university museum contains objects you won't believe". Traveller.com.au. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  5. ^ "Pitt-Rivers and Typology". The Pitt River Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  6. ^ "Deed of gift--Gifting the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum to the University of Oxford". The Pitt River Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  7. ^ "About The Pitt River Museum". The Pitt River Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  8. ^ "Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers and other museums shut over coronavirus". Oxford Mail. 17 March 2020. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  9. ^ "Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum to reopen on 22 September 2020". oumnh.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  10. ^ a b "Shrunken heads removed from Pitt Rivers Museum display". BBC. 14 September 2020. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  11. ^ "Oxford museum removes 'racist' shrunken heads from display after 80 years". The Art Newspaper. 13 September 2020. Retrieved 23 January 2023.
  12. ^ "Human remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum". The Pitt River Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  13. ^ "Star House Pole: Early Images of the Haida Totem Pole in the Pitt Rivers Museum". Pitt Rivers Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  14. ^ "Discover The Haida Totem Pole" (PDF). Pitt Rivers Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  15. ^ "Star House Pole from Old Massett Haida Gwaii Canada" (PDF). Pitt Rivers Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i Malcolm Airs (2016). "Oxford's missing museum". C20 Magazine (3): 38–47. Retrieved 11 March 2024.
  17. ^ "Museum Annual Report 1967-1968". Pitt Rivers Museum. Retrieved 11 March 2024.
  18. ^ Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (29 April 2009). "The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford reopens". The Times. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  19. ^ "2008-9 Annual Report". web.prm.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  20. ^ The Guardian (Tue 5 Jul 2005): 'Kids declare Oxford museum a family favourite'
  21. ^ "Finalists announced for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019". Art Fund.
  22. ^ "Film captures efforts to 'redress historical wrongs' at Pitt Rivers Museum". Museums Association. 3 August 2020.
  23. ^ "Committed to Change". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  24. ^ "Critical Changes". www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
  25. ^ "Shrunken heads removed from Pitt Rivers Museum display". BBC News. 14 September 2020.
  26. ^ "Museum removes shrunken heads which 'reinforced racist thinking'". CNN. 15 September 2020.
  27. ^ Mills, Eleanor (6 February 2019). "Living cultures". Museums Association.
  28. ^ Wall, Amanda S. (4 December 2018). "Maasai Community Members Work to Decolonize Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum". Museum Studies at Tufts University.
  29. ^ Murphy, Adrian (27 November 2018). "Living Cultures: Maasai leaders work with Pitt Rivers Museum to tell their story". Museums + Heritage Advisor.

Further reading