Vitreous Bodies: an intervention at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The Public Programme

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.

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).

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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.