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A museum of museums
A museum of museums

It is not by accident that Oxford is a Harry Potter-ish kind of place. Numerous scenes from the movies were filmed around the town, at locations ranging from the Duke Humfrey's room at the Bodleian Library to the dining hall at Christ Church College, which stood in for Hogwarts' own library and dining hall respectively. And while each of these spots offers a certain thrill of recognition for the Potter fan, the place in Oxford that truly conjures up the Dickensian feel of J.K. Rowling's books and the cinema adaptations is not a filming site but the controlled chaos of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The museum is to the rear of Oxford's Natural History Museum - itself extraordinary, with its arched Gothic glass ceiling, towering dinosaur skeletons and cases of live insects. The Pitt Rivers is ostensibly a museum of anthropology, but in many ways is a museum of museums themselves and is based around the collection of the luxuriantly named Lt-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, who donated in 1884 his collection of approximately 20,000 objects from around the world to the university. And though the collection has been added to significantly, modernisation has mostly been avoided to preserve the feel of the Victorian age of the adventurous amateur collector.

The result is distinctly Potter-esque and quite unlike a modern museum. In place of the usual child-friendly signage and interactive displays, there are staff members handing out torches to illuminate the gloom. Exhibits are arranged in the old-fashioned way, according to use, rather than in the now widely accepted groupings of objects from the same country or culture.

As a result, breast implants share space with Burmese brass neck rings in a case themed around body modification, while another display, called "Treatment of Dead Enemies", is stuffed with shrunken human heads bearing labels handwritten in tiny script.

After our visit to the Pitt Rivers, we head to the tourist centre to join one of the volunteer-run walking tours of the town. Our guide, a no- nonsense woman with grey hair, walks at a brisk pace and is not particularly concerned with the adventures of fictional wizards, expounding instead on altogether more orthodox subjects of the origins of Oxford and its university. We visit Jesus College, its wood-panelled dining hall lined with paintings of benefactors and alumni including Queen Elizabeth I and Lawrence of Arabia, and the iconic Radcliffe Camera, now a library and reading room and occupied at the time of our visit by students protesting over increases to higher education fees, their banners hanging limply from its venerable facade.

In true learned Oxford style, our guide peppers her commentary with highbrow literary, artistic and historical references, adding in qualification "I'm sure you already knew that", leaving us feeling deeply inadequate when we don't.

From here we walk under the Bridge of Sighs - "looks nothing like the bridge in Venice, of course", our guide snipes - and through a tangle of laneways to New College. Despite its name, "New", as it's generally known, is one of the university's oldest colleges and we're told about its history, its famous choir and how its grounds encompass part of the original city walls.

I'm just musing on the fact that our guide has failed to inform us that Hugh Grant is one of the noted alumni of the college (a fact I picked up a year or two before on a tour with a slightly more frivolous tone) when we enter the cloisters. It's a peaceful space of green lawn and a spreading old tree, and recognisable to Potter fans as the site of Draco Malfoy's punitive transformation into a ferret by Mad-Eye Moody in the fourth film.

Not unexpectedly, our guide is too busy discussing the El Greco we've just seen in the chapel to mention it.