A Warm Glow Of History In Cold Cold Oxford

Dip a wimp in years of Tenerife sunshine and you can bee sure he will be shivering, whinging, and spluttering when popping back for a few days of an English winter. It was good to be back in Oxford, the flooding from the prolonged rain wasn’t as bad as I had expected but the mercury was plunging.

In between seeing family and friends I managed a little tourist time, between the city centre and the University parks I headed for two museums that hadn’t seen my prying eyes since I was dragged there on an infant school trip. The Museum of Natural History is in a grand looking building and inside it links into the Pitt Rivers Museum, both are free, relying on donations from visitors. The heavy wooden door of the main building opened inward to reveal a vaulted glass roofed, two galleried treasure trove of nature. Hipocrates gazed down on a stuffed American Black Bear that had a sign saying Please Touch. There was a lot of hands on exhibits but some like the two dinosaur skeletons that dominate the man aisle are a bit more protected. I remember being in awe of these creatures and the whale bones hanging from the ceiling, memories of forced duty and learning was instantly dispelled by the bright, friendly lay out of the place. A couple of large school parties were eagerly exploring the walkways and scribbling notes in their school books. There were a lot of interactive displays too with video and spoken insights. Hipocrates was just one of an army of famous thinkers and scientists whose statues ringed the museum, Charles Darwin is particularly prominent, the Dodo is the logo of the museum.

One of the staff told me the museum had only re-opened two years ago after “going dark” for 18 months. In those closed months some of the bigger exhibits went on tour while the building was spruced up. I could see a big effort had been made to make displays relevant for young enquiring minds, a display on bone and animal tissue dating was linked to a CSI theme, and a large collection of insects had a DVD case and drawings based on the Disney film “A Bugs Life”. The smaller thoughtful touches were everywhere, pillars around the edge of the upstairs gallery were made from granite and sandstone from all around the UK coast. I stopped off in the upstairs café for a coffee and chunk of chocolate cake, very homely and welcoming.

Going back downstairs I headed through the old stone archway into Pitt Rivers Museum, named after the founder Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, you wouldn’t want to call him in for tea! This was much more old school, dark, compact with galleries on three floors, all crammed with display cases of masks, musical instruments, maps, mummies, and weapons. The huge totem pole at the far end was an abiding memory of my youthful visits. The cramped layout was retained even after a recent facelift and it suited the slightly eerie feel, small children huddled between the exhibits sketching and their chatter was reduced to guarded whispers. Some of the displays were quite bloodthirsty and a large section of knives, spears, and crudely made weapons added to the Scooby Doo mood – I expected to see the curator slipping into a ghostly mummy outfit or a startling voodoo mask.

Modern thinking is the way forward for museums, Pitt Rivers do night time tours, some by torch light, how cool is that? Both museums have free Wi Fi and are very active on the joint website as well as their Twitter and Facebook feeds. There were a lot of younger, very enthusiastic staff on hand to answer questions – I think several of them were probably studying related science subjects at local colleges. I spent a couple of fascinating hours avoiding the chilly blasts of winter outside and will add more museums and galleries on future home visits, well it may make up for all the school time I frittered away. With my thirst for knowledge quenched it was time to seek out a pub and attend to my more basic desires – well all this exploring is thirsty work.