We had arranged to meet Matthew and go for a meal. It was great to see him and meet Jess for the first time. She seems lovely, and we we reflected afterwards that all three off-spring are 'in relationships' as Facebook so coyly puts it and have jobs. Long may it continue! We grey-haired provincials are always keen to be educated by our more savvy, urban offspring so far as eating out is concerned. Matthew had lined up a Chinese restaurant called 'Sojo'. It looked unprepossessing from the street, adjacent to a backpacker hotel and a Staples office supplies shop. Inside was modern and quietly understated, the menu extensive and the food excellent. We cannot pretend to be knowledgeable about Chinese cuisine, but the dishes we had, duck in plum sauce, chicken satay and an aubergine with ginger dish, were just as good as anything we tasted in Hong Kong. More to the point, the place was packed with Chinese famililies, both local and visitors, or it seemed. So, when I googled the place later, it came as little surprise that it has received rave reviews from the Telegraph food critic. These days we don't eat out much. Gill loves cooking and seeking out interesting ingredients. This is just as well, our tendency to look at a restaurant bill and convert it into the cost of filling Maisy with a tank of diesel somewhat stymies any pretences we might have had towards fine dining. It's good our kids push us from time to time towards eating out. Otherwise we might become completely reclusive.
|Sojo - dull exterior, fab food inside.|
|The 'Bridge of Sighs' and Sheldonian Theatre|
|Hawkesmoor's All Souls.|
|The opposite side of the Sheldonian to the Radcliffe Camera, a comparative haven of peace - not a selfie stick to be seen|
|A figurine of Pan on the gable of an old pub.|
|Oxford Central Market - a curious mix of artisan sausages abd designer shoes.|
|Sadly the food stalls seem to be diminishing, tucked away in the corners of the place.|
|The Bodleian in icing sugar...|
|Old caffs and newer bars....|
The museum was just around the corner. The grand High Victorian building that houses the collections is in itself significant. It was the University's first building dedicated to the study of the natural sciences, one of the first in the country built in the 1850s just as the debate about the implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection was beginning to catch the public imagination.
The building in fact houses two contrasting collections. The great hall contains the natural history collections - cases of bones and stones - that aim to tell the story of the Earth's formation and how life evolved upon it.
|A big question....How did this....|
|lead to this?|
In some ways the Pitt Rivers is a deeply unfashionable place both in its appearance and intent. Visually, it is big on display, but light on interpretation. These days when we are used to highly curated exhibitions which 'walk us through' an experience showcasing carefully chosen artefacts, beautifully lit, interspersed with stylish information boards and hands-on computer-based dispays; coming across a traditional museum is a bit of a shock. It leaves it up to the visitor to make sense of the place. The wealth of material on show, the fortuitous juxtapositions, the way your feet and mind are left to wander is overwhelming but exhilarating. It's refreshing to be left to your own devices.
In these days of Post-colonialist theory and concerns about cultural appropriation I suppose the purpose and intent of a collection like the Pitt-Rivers has become open to question. There can be little doubt that filching sacred items such as totem poles and ritual masks then sticking them in a museum glass case is a product, more often than not of barefaced theft followed by a subsequent misappropriation based on the re-interpretation of the artefacts by academic study. However it's not that simple, as Mary Beard explores in her book about the Parthenon. The demand by Athens for the return of the Elgin Marbles is difficult to argue against. So should all the archeological items in the Pitt Rivers be returned to the cultures which produced them? Taken to an extreme it could be argued that any scholarly study of artefacts from non-Western cultures is a kind of appropriation as the evidence based, Socratic method that underlies academia is a Western invention, but only the most die-hard post-modernist would attempt to defend this position. What is great about the museum is it does provoke this kind of inner debate. At least it did for me, and since the three of us more or less immediately became separated I wandered about on my own, much bemused.
Above all, because of the juxtaposition of natural science with anthropology the place confronts head-on one of the big questions of our time - What is the relationship between science and culture? During the 1850s when Oxford's Department for Natural Science was established the study of nature was seen in semi-religious terms as an exploration of the wonders of God's creation. Subsequent study over the last 150 years have discovered many wonderful things, but no evidence whatsoever of a creator. Not only does it seem likely that life on earth is the result of a chemical accident, but the what, where, and how of this molecular accident is becoming clear to scientists studying the venting of undersea volcanoes in Iceland.