From ancient wonders to witch magic

by Carmen Allan-Petale

When we went to Oxford recently, we decided to visit the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum. We’re glad we did as the two exhibitions were some of the best we’d ever been to.

The beautiful Oxford Museum of Natural History building

The building that houses the natural history museum is worth a visit in itself. With its stunning gothic architecture it makes a grand impression as you approach its entrance. Upon entering, the ceiling lets in masses of natural light as it’s made entirely from glass.

The dinosaur skeletons shining in the natural light provided by the museum’s glass ceiling

At the front of the museum you’re confronted by a massive whale’s jaw bone which is about six metres high. Behind this is a giant skeleton of a tyrannosaurus dinosaur.

Throughout the museum there are other interesting exhibitions such as a display on Alice in Wonderland, as its author – Lewis Carroll – studied at Oxford University. I didn’t realise that Alice was based on a real girl called Alice, but she was!

The real Alice in Wonderland

There are other treasures in the museum too – fossilised dinosaur eggs, bodies of spider crabs that were nearly as big as me, and giant quartz rocks that are billions of years old.

110 million year old dinosaur eggs from China

To the back of the building you step into the gloom of the Pitt Rivers Museum where you can use torches to peer into the cabinets. A large totem pole that spans the full three floors of the building dominates the back wall. The darkness compliments the eerie atmosphere and the creepiness is further enhanced by the wares inside the glass displays.

The view of the Pitt River Museum from the third floor

On the ground floor you can view opium pipes dating back centuries, ancient bagpipes and even a mummified body from ancient Egypt. However, by far the most fascinating objects for me were the shrunken heads.

Antique opium pipes

The practise of creating shrunken heads originates from the north western region of the Amazon, although it was also an evil method used by the Nazis in WWII. Shrunken heads are formed by removing the skull from the skin and sewing shut the eyelids and the mouth of the person’s face. A wooden ball is then placed inside the head cavity to keep its shape before the flesh is boiled and covered in herbs. Finally, the head is dried with hot rocks and covered in sand to preserve it.

A creepy shrunken head

Quite a process, but Amazonian tribes believed it necessary to treat enemies’ heads this way in order to prevent the soul from escaping its body and avenging its death. They used to wear the shrunken heads around their necks almost like jewellery.

Another gruesome shrunken head

With shivers running down our spines after seeing something so gruesome, we mounted the stairs to the second floor where we learnt about human mutilation equipment, such a neck stretching; the method of wrapping a baby’s head so tightly that it changes shape; and Chinese foot bonding. There were some more light-hearted exhibitions however, such as hand drawn playing cards from the early 19th century.

Hand drawn playing cards from the early 1800s

On the third and top floor of the building was Dave’s favourite room – weaponry. The standouts for me were the hand grenades used in WWI and the body armour made by Oceanic tribes from natural resources, such as porcupine fish and stingrays.

A war belt made from stingray skin from the Gilbert Islands

A porcupine fish skin helmet from the Gilbert Islands

You need at least two hours to visit both museums but like many public buildings in the UK they are free to enter. The exhibitions are certainly worthwhile – I’ve never before seen such a collection of the weird and wonderful, the gruesome and the gory, all crammed into two impressive buildings.

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