Putting the pits into Pitt Rivers

What constitutes an exhibition? I realise this review space is normally reserved for discussion of actual content of exhibitions, but it seems fitting that I ask this almost facetious question by way of introduction for this week’s review. On the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and crucially under the ‘Exhibitions’ section of it, we are told that DisGUISE and DOLLS is a selection of work by Oxford Brookes Fine Art students. So I was a little shocked to find a single display case, the size of a large wardrobe, with DisGUISE and DOLLS written on a panel at the top. Tucked in the corner of a mezzanine floor was the entirety of an ‘exhibition’. But, even casting aside this snobbery of mine about size, I struggled to find anything gripping about the little that what was on show.

The exhibition supposedly responds to the various representations of the human form on display in the Pitt Rivers, with students exploring the use and meaning of dolls in our lives today. The budding fine artists interviewed each other to try to get to grips with their personal cha

racteristics, before then going to on to articulate their conception of their ‘selves’/alter-egos in the production of ‘dolls’.

Latex, tin cans, needles, clay, tribal beads and lace have all been used in one or more of the dolls. All of them are essentially assemblages of found objects pieced together with a fraction of the enthusiasm of the many young children participating in a crafts workshop at the same time as my visit. The dolls simply don’t stand for anything. If any readers did GCSE Art, you might remember the tenuous links that you used to draw between your random thoughts and their manifestation in your physical artwork. I forgot to mention earlier that the exhibition also consists of a thick paper booklet. In it, we are told that the jars in which some dolls are placed prevent touching and thus represent independence; dead flies represent self-doubt; and a girl’s politeness is represented by the use of broken eggshells. One student who produced a doll with an oversized orange head, said that the cast was deliberately out of proportion with the body to ‘ironically depict’ his shyness.

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The booklet ends with an essay written by one of the student artists. He claims that the dolls exhibition serves as a blueprint for a more inclusive, more tolerant society. In contrast to the other display pieces in the Pitt Rivers, these dolls have no single cultural or historical reference point. Thus they are supposed to herald a new pluralist landscape.

Sadly though, given the array of fascinating archaeological and anthropological antiquities on show in the main gallery spaces, this suggestion falls flat. Beyond the realm of the exhibition’s cabinet, the museum’s general collection is organised according to how the objects were made rather than cultural origin or age. This emphasises the creativity and skill with which humans have tackled and adjusted to deal with the common problems of daily life over time; creativity and skill, which are completely absent in DisGUISE and DOLLS.

‘DisGUISE and DOLLS’ is on at the Pitt Rivers Museum until 21st March (Admission is free).