Why the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a Hobbit Museum
I'm sure you know, of course, that hobbits have museums. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien says that hobbits have 'mathom-houses', for mathoms: things that are no longer used, but which one doesn’t wish to throw away. They are things filled with the vestiges of lives past and gone, and they accumulate, like fossils: mathoms are dead things.
The displays of the Pitt Rivers Museum look a bit like I imagine a mathom-house would look. It’s dark in there, and there are all sorts of old things. They aren’t actually used much, either: most of them are things from when people did things a different way, or with materials that aren’t used very much any more. The stocks from the village I live in are there, along with bows and arrows, quite a lot of archaic weapons, Samurai armor, shell armbands, string made of out bison hair, and capes made for the royal family of Hawaii which are completely covered in the bright feathers of now-extinct birds. None of this stuff is used any more in the sense it was originally intended to be used. The place is a mathom-house (though, alas, it does not contain the sword Sting).
And yet: jewelry designers come to look at jeweler from around the world. Basket makers can see, in one case, how basket makers around the world have solved the problem of going around corners and finishing rims, in many different media. Authors set stories here, both they and their characters taking inspiration from the maze of cases and their contents. Students come to draw: there’s no end to the things you can draw in this place.
And so the collections are used to inspire creativity and learning in the present. They also provoke memory and cultural knowledge, and help to restore cultural practices, and thus to strengthen Indigenous identity in the present. This is not looking to the past to stay in the past; it is about knowing who you are today. This is not a mathom-house: these things are still very much in use.