Much to my shame I have to admit that it has taken me well over two years of living in Oxford to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum and the History of Science Museum. Now that I finally have, I want to spread the word and urge everyone to go.
In 1884, Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers gave his collection of nearly 20,000 objects collected from many different cultures all over the world to the University of Oxford. As Pitt Rivers wanted it, the collection, spanning two floors in the beautiful open plan building behind the Natural History Museum (in itself worth a visit - don't forget to look up to see the amazing glass roof!), is grouped according to how the objects were made and what they were used for rather than on the basis of their age and cultural origin. This makes it easy to compare objects both through the ages and between cultures. The museum displays an excellent selection of medical tools through the ages and, in one of the many drawers you're allowed to open, you can find a collection of pendants, dead frogs, mole feet, and even a 20-year-old hot cross bun, all used to cure diseases. Or move on to one of the most macabre things I've ever seen on display in a museum: the shrunken heads. The heads belonged to the less fortunate in battle and were hung around the neck of conqueror.
Once you’ve had your fill of the Pitt Rivers’ gothic charms, you can turn your attention to the relics of past scientific endeavours down the road at the History of Science Museum. To gain entrance to the 17th century building which houses the collection, you have to pass by four imposing “emperor's heads” and climb a grandiose set of steps, but once inside, it is the small scale and beauty that strikes you. Throughout, you can find an amazing collection of scientific instruments, from the first camera to the largest collection of ancient astrolabes in the UK. Perhaps the most famous object in the museum is the blackboard with Einstein's notes from a 1931 lecture given in Oxford dealing with some of the fundamental questions in cosmology. Rivalling some of the gruesome fascination of the Pitt Rivers’ shrunken heads is the display of medical instruments through the ages. As I stood in front of the display, I couldn’t help but imagine the sheer brutality of the procedures and the pain people in the Middle Ages must have gone through to have their limbs amputated. The museum also features special exhibitions alongside their permanent collection. In Steampunk, both the name of the exhibition and an art form, they wonderfully displayed the marriage between science and art showing objects (scroll down for some images of the objects) with futuristic ideas that are at the same time reminiscent of the past in the intricacy of their construction.
It is nice to know that one does not have to travel all the way to London to have your imagination transported and see the way in which human ingenuity, engineering and superstition have all played a role in our scientific progress.