There is a coin cut into four parts, next to a round tile made of compressed tobacco that is missing a chunk. These two are displayed alongside other currency solutions that pre-date PayPal. In another cabinet there are crafted objects made of nails and frogs, and various other charms with handwritten labels describing the hexes they were part of, including some ancient bottles, one reportedly containing the spirit of a witch.
This is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, founded in 1884. It was started with curiosities from the South Pacific collected by naturalists serving on Captain Cook’s second famous voyage of 1772-1775. Changing historical attitudes to objects removed from their original place and society frame the collection in a different light now, but the museum has remained a rare treasure trove of exotic shapes, materials and solutions from near and far.
Not far from a shrunken head you’ll find a batch of whistling arrows, methods for making fire, a variety of implements developed for smoking and different vessels used for lighting. One of them is – or used to be – a puffer fish that now houses a light fitting and bulb. Every cabinet bursts with curiosities grouped by the problem or need they address.
Ranging over three floors, it celebrates human ingenuity, and is full of objects that carry the stories of the times, places and people that made them. This may well be the most exciting design museum so far, or perhaps one of the best compilations of short stories.