Vitreous Bodies: An intervention at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Vitreous Bodies is a new project curated to draw attention to the links between colonialism and museum collections, particularly the relationship between the forcible removal of cultural artefacts and the way that heritage is defined in Western museums primarily by visual encounters with objects. This project aims to bring these issues alive through a temporary display that was performed and photographed by Dr Errol Francis, Artistic Director of Culture&.
Two persons (Dr Errol Francis and Professor Victoria Tischler) were installed inside one of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s iconic Victorian vitrines as a temporary display that was photographed. The installation called attention to the relationship between objectifying the human body, religion, violence and the collecting of artefacts as being interrelated actions of Western colonialism. Alongside the individuals, the installation displayed a number of objects referencing different heritage collections such as the Bodleian Library, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxford Botanic Garden:
A prototype of the 1853 Enfield Pattern rifle-musket that was modernised by Augustus Pitt-Rivers, the founder of the Pitt Rivers Museum and played a major role in colonial conflicts such as the Indian Uprising of 1857 and in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.
A fruit from Artocarpus altilis, the breadfruit – a plant that is native to the South Pacific. It was this plant that William Bligh, commander of the ill-fated His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty, was charged with transporting as the first part of the botanist Sir Joseph Banks' experiment to transplant a major protein rich food crop to the Caribbean to feed slaves.
The 1560 Geneva Bible references the claim of the divine promise of land which became integrally linked with an assumed divine mandate on the part of the European colonisers to exterminate indigenous people. This narrative which has supported virtually all Western colonising enterprises (e.g. in Latin America, South Africa, Palestine), resulted in the suffering of hundreds of millions of people, and an enduring scepticism towards the Bible.
The installation was photographed on 29 February 2019 and the finished work, which is a diptych, will be displayed at Pitt Rivers Museum in an exhibition in 2020 (date to be announced).
"I am delighted by this collaboration with the Pitt Rivers Museum. The project demonstrates the Museum’s commitment to a decolonising agenda in relation to its collection and public engagement and I look forward to further collaboration on the forthcoming exhibition."
"Working with artists in museums is an important way of contextualising collections and asking critical questions. It empowers the visitor to think for themselves, making collections relevant to the individuals who visit. When Errol suggested this particular decolonisation intervention it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. You can put an essay on the wall but it is only one perspective and people might not choose to read it. Art can be interpreted in multiple ways."
Errol Francis, Vitreous Bodies (left panel with Victoria Tischler) 2019.
Errol Francis, Vitreous Bodies (right panel with the artist) 2019.
Contacts for further information and press images
Andrew McLellan, Head of Learning and Participation, Pitt Rivers Museum E email@example.com T +44 (0)1865 270949
Samuel Pontin, Programme Coordinator, Culture& E firstname.lastname@example.org T +44 (0)20 7264 0000
Errol Francis is an artist trained at Central Saint Martins College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. His doctoral thesis was concerned with postcolonial artistic responses to museums and this has been a subject of his artistic and professional practice for the past decade. He has made a number of photographic works that question the concept of heritage in terms of what is included and excluded by his term, responding to iconic British heritage spaces such as the National Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Dr Francis is also artistic director of Culture&, an organisation that aims to diversify the UK arts and heritage sector through workforce initiatives and public programmes.
The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
The Pitt Rivers Museum is the most important ethnographic museum collection in the UK outside the British Museum. The Museum was founded in 1884, when General Augustus Pitt Rivers, a British army officer and an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University of Oxford. The collection holds 600,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from almost every country in the world and from all periods of human existence. Unusually, the displays – showing over 55,000 artefacts – are organised by type, rather than geographical region or time period.
Culture&, is a London-based independent arts and heritage charity established in 1987 whose mission is to open up the arts and heritage workforce, audiences and programmes through training, cross arts commissioning and audience development. Culture&’s flagship programme the New Museum School provides 18 work-based training placements annually with leading museums, galleries and arts organisations such as the British Museum, Southbank Centre, Royal Collection Trust, English Heritage and the British Library. Culture&’s public programmes are aimed at expanding audiences and are delivered in collaboration with arts and heritage organisations such as the British Library, Wellcome Collection.