Review: Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Last Friday marked the start of the eight-week Oxford Christmas festival. Many museums opened their doors with special evening events, from a festival at the Ashmolean to a moon-themed evening at the Museum of the History of Science. By far the most popular event, however, seems to have been Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The event centred around all things Arctic, and the museum itself was to be shrouded in darkness, to be explored by torchlight. Most enticingly, the museum announced that the soundtrack playing that evening would include a voice-over of Philip Pullman reading from Northern Lights – the first instalment of his amazing His Dark Materials trilogy, the stage version of which was put on in Oxford just last week.

The Pitt Rivers had created its hype very carefully. To say that their publicity campaign was successful would be an understatement: 3500 people pledged to attend on Facebook alone. A reader who is familiar with the Museum of Natural History/Pitt Rivers building may well be confused by these numbers: the two museums each have one large floor space and an upper gallery – how are all these thousands of people going to fit in? The answer is sad and simple: they didn’t. Starting at seven, by eight o’clock there was an hour-long queue to get into the museums. Inside, most people would have to face another queue of at least half an hour to get into the Pitt Rivers itself, which led to the rather odd sight of seeing more people standing in line along the many display cases of taxidermied animals of the Natural History Museum than actually walking among them, even though this museum had its own Northern Lights-themed events, which included an Arctic bar, children’s activities, and a band playing with the T-Rex skeleton looming over them.

Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum
Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

So, imagine someone would have stood in line for an hour and a half to get into the Northern Lights exhibition. Would it have been worth it?

Beautiful as it usually is, the hall looked even more impressive in twilight – to call it ‘dark’ would be an overstatement, and with many children visiting, darkness would have been too dangerous anyway. The torches were certainly necessary, to look into the display cabinets and read the explanations. And the shrunken heads, of course, already strange and creepy to see in full daylight, drew furtive whispers from a crowd of onlookers as they looked positively terrifying by torchlight.

Unfortunately, however, the soundtrack playing in the background proved to be a strange mix that did not always blend well. It consisted of “natural sounds from Arctic regions” and “samples of indigenous music” which indeed worked very well with the objects on display, but Pullman’s reading was drowned out too much by the large crowd to follow the story well enough to be able to fit it in with the surroundings. The final part of the soundtrack was filled by “Museum staff discussing Arctic objects on display”, and this was a strange choice indeed – whenever one of these sections started, it sounded as if a museum staff member was making an announcement to the crowd over the intercom, interrupting the music.

The museum staff themselves seemed rather flustered by the overwhelming number of people attending the event. It is unfortunate indeed that the event had a turnout such as this, because all in all, the crowds meant it would not have been worth a wait of an hour and a half to get into Northern Lights. For those who had never been to the museum before, this must have been an impressive sight indeed. Yet for those who had, although it was beautiful, it did not add enough novelty to the wealth the museum normally offers to reward such perseverance. This is a shame, since such special events are what would draw a previous visitor to a museum once more.

This, however, should not mean that the Pitt Rivers should avoid multimedia events in the future, it just might require more limited entrance numbers. The popularity of this event clearly showed that there is a large audience for such museum lates, and that they appeal to visitors of all ages. Considering the limitations of the venue, the two museums might have been better off by merging their events completely (am I opening a can of worms here?) in order to create one big event – with one single queue. If anything, Northern Lights proved that interactive events are more popular than some museums might anticipate, which should mean that we will hopefully be seeing more of them in the future.

K. Dihal

For more information about the Pitt Rivers Museum and their upcoming events, please visit their website.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on MsKanta and commented:
    I review more than just books! Last Friday, I visited a special theme event at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Alongside with about 4000 other visitors…

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