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Removing relics vs. preserving history

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In 1860, Thomas Huxley, a loyal defender of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, debated Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce over "The Origin of the Species." (Mr. Wilberforce agreed with many of the day's leading biologists that God commanded and nature followed.) The best line was uttered by a woman who wasn't even allowed to attend: "Descended from an ape? Let us hope that it's not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."

In the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, curators exhibit by theme, not nationality or region. The museum showcases such things as the methods of firemaking from all cultures, bagpipes from around the world, bark clothing from seven or eight civilizations, and the methods of headshrinking from three continents.

The tiny, dark museum demonstrates brilliantly that mankind is one big - but rarely happy - family. The items crammed into each museum case and the graying, handwritten signage describing them illustrate, with splendid subtlety, how we all share the same needs and desires.

For example, one exhibit explains that aggrieved parties in early Nigeria drove nails into large wooden heads representing their antagonists. This practice satisfied the "nail driver" and helped relieve some of the malice he may have felt. Perhaps significantly, Nigeria - now with many of its indigenous conflict resolution practices replaced by Western-influenced legal processes - is verging on another civil war.

I still wrestled with the "theft or preservation" debate until the world's oldest museum enabled me to relate significantly to both sides. My state, Virginia, is gearing up for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and buried in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum is one of the crowning pieces of early American history.

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