Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities

It’s daft not to think that you know we’re writers. Of course you know that; I talk about it all the time.

The husband, in particular works a lot; he’s well-known for it. I work less, in so far as I’m published less than he is, but I also support his work quite a lot, and do stuff for him behind the scenes.

We work in very different ways, but something we both share is the need for stimulus.

Some of that stimulus comes in the form of books, music and visual stuff like tv and movies, but some of it comes in the form of what we call ‘stuff and things’. That can include anything from experiences to food and on to travel, art and objects. It’s about experiencing the World and what it has to offer.

One of the many things we do, and the husband in particular does this, is surround ourselves with objects. The entire house has stuff in it, apart from the bedroom, which is still and quiet, both visually and otherwise. As someone who sleeps very little, I do, at least, need my rest. 

It is useful to the husband, and, to some extent to me too, to be able to pick up and look at objects, to get an idea of what things look and feel like, whether those things are weapons, say, or artefacts, whether they are made of particular materials, whether they are simply odd, historic, interesting or beautiful, or whether they evoke a memory of a time, place, person or of another object.

When you write as much as the husband does, and when you need to generate ideas, the mind must constantly be fed. This is one of the ways we feed our minds.

It was the husband’s birthday recently, and so we spent the week in Oxford. We don’t really do holidays, so, while we didn’t do a lot of writing, we did spend a lot of time gathering stimulus and having experiences, all of which informs the work.

Oxford has several good museums. I’m a big fan of the Ashmolean, and we visit it every time we go to Oxford, but it’s a long time since the husband had been to the Pitt Rivers Museum, and I’d never been.

The Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers is possibly the biggest and best cabinet of curiosities in the UK… perhaps the World. I’ve never been in another museum quite like it, but I shall certainly be visiting it again, and soon.

Arranged thematically, or in 'typological series' it’s possible to walk around and around the exhibits and stand in front of the cabinets for long minutes just staring in wonder at collections of all kinds of wonderful things. I loved the nose-flutes and the canoe bailers in particular, and the model boats were gorgeous. It’s not every day you see a shrunken head, but a glass case full of them!

Part of the wonder of the museum is the way that everything is displayed in the old wood and glass cases and cabinets, often with viewing cases above and below, so that it’s necessary to squat, bend or lean to get a good look at everything. There are cabinets with drawers below, too, which can be pulled out to see yet more of this amazing collection.

The Victorians were great collectors of things, often for the sake of curiosity or acquisition. They would plunder and despoil as a matter of entitlement. They were imperialists.

Pitt Rivers, the man after whom this collection is named was an ethnographer, an educator. His interests lay in the evolution of design and technology. It’s for this reason that the displays are arranged by type rather than by era and location.

There is something wonderful about the arrangement of the exhibits, something that shows us how very much we are one race, thinking alike and reacting to similar conditions, responding along the same lines to comparable situations and circumstances.

In this exhibition we see fewer of the differences between various cultures and more how very much we all think alike, solving the same problems in very similar ways. It shows how we strive for the same things: to communicate, make art and music, clothe and feed ourselves and stave off the elements. It shows our shared longing for exploration and how we cope with adversity. It shows that we all turn to rites and rituals, that we all celebrate and mourn.

I loved the Pitt Rivers Museum and I highly recommend it to all of you. This was not just the best cabinet of curiosities it has ever been my privilege to explore… it also gave me food for thought.

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