Decolonising the Pitt Rivers Collection
While applying for my placement, there was little doubt what my first choice was. Not only has the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford been a favourite of mine for a very long time, but their current work on decolonising their collections and displays made it a particularly interesting institution for someone who is interested in anthropology and Pacific arts. It was a chance for me to work in a museum that was actively looking at ways to rethink their collection, its origin and their ways of displaying it.
My main task revolved around writing new labels as part of the museum’s ongoing Drawers Project in which the publicly accessible drawers are being redisplayed in order to make the collection even more accessible. Xinru, a second Leicester student, and I picked finished drawers to write labels for. These could be on an overarching theme or about one or more of the items inside. They could be traditional informative labels, photographs or quotes from an indigenous person about the artefacts; thus recognising that indigenous knowledge is as important as traditional museum knowledge. Whatever format I chose, I had to keep in mind the museum’s in-house guidelines and policy, especially in terms of decolonisation of the language and ethical interpretation of the collection which are at the core of museum’s policy.
This attention to potential biases was central to every tasks we were given, whether it was the accessioning of new acquisition or provenance research related to human remains in the collection. But I also got to learn very practical skills such as the packing of objects and the creation of bespoke boxes for oversized items.
This placement was an amazing experience encompassing a wide array of curatorial tasks. It highlighted the necessity for museums, especially those with anthropological collections inherited from colonisation, to continuously reflect upon their collections, its history and its interpretation in order to create a more ethical and just space where everyone can feel welcomed.
Séverine Toyon-Pope, Msc Museum Studies
(Left Image: Severine and Xinru worked with the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Right Image: Severine with her favourite object on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum)