Yesterday was day 19 of illness in the Oxford Mommy household. Two back-to-back colds have caused us to cancel all our classes, playdates, and outings for the last couple of weeks and we were going stir-crazy. So I was racking my brains for somewhere to take the Baberoo where she wouldn’t touch things that other babies would then touch and get sick, because I would never want to inflict this cold on anyone else. All of a sudden I had an epiphany: a fun place where you don’t touch stuff? A museum, of course! So we set out for the Pitt Rivers Museum (South Parks Road, OX1 3PP, admission free) where I figured that I would get a little boost from looking at the shrunken heads and realizing that I still don’t look that bad, even after two and a half weeks of no sleep.
The Pitt Rivers is a worldwide anthropological collection, with objects displayed by type rather than by culture or age. Whether you’re interested in musical instruments, boomerangs, clothing, body art, spears, or toys, or just coming to browse through the myriad objects and traditions that the museum houses, you’ll always discover something interesting and unusual. The old-style exhibition cases with their tiny handwritten labels give the museum a dark, enchanting atmosphere. But it’s not musty or boring, and during our visit there was a group of schoolchildren on a booked education session who were really enjoying vivid storytelling by a staff member.
The Baberoo, being a little cranky because of her cold, was not terribly impressed by the collections, but I enjoyed looking at them, especially the textiles and the ‘ball games’ case. I was also pleased to note, after inspecting the ‘Treatment of the Dead’ case, that I did indeed still look better than a shrunken head. (We’ll have to see if that still applies in a week or so if we’re still not sleeping at night, though.) I do think that the Pitt Rivers collections appeal to older children rather than babies, so if you choose this museum as a destination it’ll mainly be for yourself. Once your kid gets to the age where they can ask all sorts of questions, it’ll be a great place for them too.
So how does the Pitt Rivers rate for baby-friendliness? I’m rating it on my ‘attractions’ scale of 8 points, 2 each for space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more about my ratings system, see my About page.
Space: The building the Pitt Rivers shares with the currently-closed Museum of Natural History (reopening in 2014) is an old-style Victorian building and has lots of stairs at the front, so there’s a special entrance at the side for prams and wheelchairs. The signage was good until I got to where I thought I was supposed to go in, and then I was stymied until a staff member helped me. Once inside, there’s a route to follow to get to a lift, which will bring you to the main floor of the Museum of Natural History, which you walk through until you get to the Pitt Rivers. The entrance to the Pitt Rivers is its gift shop, and there’s a platform lift to get to the main court area from there. There’s another (very large) lift that will take you from the court level to the two gallery levels.
With all the cases in the court area, you might think there wasn’t enough room to push a baby carriage around, but actually there was plenty of space to get through, even with our very large Uppababy Vista. It was fun to go around corners and be surprised by the contents of the next case, and I never ran into any areas where I couldn’t get through.
Ambiance: Staff were extremely friendly and helpful, which made up for the bad signage at the front. The museum is quite dark and pretty quiet, so it may be a good bet if you want a sleeping baby to stay asleep (unless there’s a school activity going on, in which case you can hear it throughout the space). I also personally appreciate the feeling of being surrounded by things made of natural materials that have taken time, skill, and attention to craft – it’s the kind of atmosphere that can soothe my most uneasy, illness-induced addled-brain feelings.
Facilities: There is a baby-changing area on the court gallery level. It is very pretty. But whoever designed it didn’t think about needing to bring a pushchair in with you, so it is the narrowest possible space. We certainly couldn’t navigate it with our large pushchair and I doubt even the smallest umbrella stroller could make it into the space along with a parent and still have enough room for the door to close. It’s a shame, because it’s a nice-looking room and you can tell the designer tried to maximize the space by putting the changing table directly above the sink.
However, you are in luck because there’s another baby-changing room elsewhere in the museum, and it’s huge. You need to go back out via the same route you came in, through the Museum of Natural History and down in the lift to the corridor leading to the wheelchair/pram exit. In that corridor there is a massive disabled/baby change toilet which has all the space you need.
Feeding: I didn’t feed the Baberoo while we were at the museum, and of course actual food and drink wouldn’t be permitted inside the museum building. As for breastfeeding, I’ve been happy to do so in many other museums, although there aren’t too many seats available at the Pitt Rivers. The only ones I saw were within the court gallery, right amongst the display cases. I don’t think there were any in the non-gallery areas (ie, the corridors, near the lifts, etc), but I did see someone sitting on a bench in the area outside the Pitt Rivers entrance (in the under-construction Museum of Natural History). Your choices are limited for sure, and I would probably go elsewhere for a feed.
The Pitt Rivers Museum gets a 5.75 out of 8 on my baby-friendliness scale. It’s a nice place to go for a quiet and extremely interesting afternoon away from the bright lights and big crowds of central Oxford – not only during this pre-Christmas rush season, but at any time of the year.