5 Oct 2012
Skeletons, shrunken heads and sick
I spent four very happy years at university in Oxford, and as several friends have lived there on and off over the decade plus since I left, I’ve been back for more visits than I can count. But this one was just a bit different – for starters, it’s the first time I’ve pushed a buggy through the city. And, to my slight shame, it’s the first time I’ve made it to the Pitt Rivers museum.
Yep, Minnie and I were finally going on an outing which required me driving for more than about 10 minutes without any adult supervision. I still feel slightly like we’re taking baby steps together, as Oxford is only an hour or so from my house, but where better to start than somewhere I know – and more to the point, somewhere where I’m less likely to get horribly lost en route.
Thankfully, Minnie played along and promptly fell fast asleep almost as I turned out of the drive, with only a few grumbles as I accelerated unintendedly quickly from some lights outside Oxford. She even pulled the same trick on the way home, although with a lot more yelling for the last 10 minutes, including during the tricky parking manoeuvre needed for our driveway. Fortunately I only lightly brushed the bush as she distracted me. Honest.
So after our safe arrival, the big question was what to do? We started with lunch with one of my oldest friends before debating what the three of us could get up to for the afternoon. Oxford almost certainly has plenty of very child-friendly activities, but Minnie’s still at an age where she doesn’t really care what she does, although if there’s trees to look at, that’s a bonus. That meant I got to pick an adult-friendly activity and try to work out how to do it with a buggy, as I’d intelligently left the baby carrier at home.
And actually the Pitt Rivers museum is pretty good at ticking both boxes (for older kids, grab the free family guide book). Plus, it’s free. Officially it houses ‘the University of Oxford’s collection of anthropology and world archaeology’ – in reality, it’s like a treasure trove meets jumble sale of fascinating odds and ends picked up from around the globe, which now totals nearly half a million objects, including probably the most famous exhibits, the shrunken heads.
As well as an obstacle course of glass display cases, a totem pole, and schoolchildren sketching (though not at the heads or assorted death ritual paraphernalia for some reason), you can open some of the drawers to find additional hidden artefacts, which all makes it feel faintly like going through a retired Victorian explorer’s drawers. Buggies, thankfully, are welcome in the museum and the Bee snuck around happily, although I wouldn’t fancy trying it with something too much bigger. As one of the lifts was out of order, a helpful member of staff even offered to help carry it up and down the few stairs.
As a bonus, you also get to walk through the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with its impressive dinosaur skeletons and dodo skull, to reach the Pitt Rivers. Minnie seemed to approve, as I wheeled her round, although it seems the excitement was just too much as after we’d checked out one of the temporary exhibitions, she was promptly lavishly sick. Luckily, there’s baby changing facilities on the ground floor, pointed out by the same helpful member of staff.
And after a quick walk through the University Parks, which has some significantly more interesting trees than our local park, it was time to head back home.
Of course, Oxford has more museums and history than you can shake a dreaming spire at, so I feel at least one return visit is in order. For starters, despite years of lectures next to the Ashmolean, I never managed to make it inside there either…
Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr