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‘Shrunken heads’ removed from display as museum seeks to ‘decolonise’ collection

Written by on 14 September 2020

A museum at Oxford University has removed its famous collection of shrunken heads and other human remains from display as it seeks to “decolonise” its collection.

Pitt Rivers Museum, which is to reopen on 22 September, describes itself as one of the leading anthropology, ethnography and archaeology museums in the world.

But much of its collection of 500,000 items acquired over more than 130 years is closely tied to British Imperial expansion and the “colonial mandate” to collect and classify objects from around the globe.

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The tsantsa display had been controversial. Pic: Hugh Warwick

The decision to pull some of the artefacts comes after a three-year review into the ethical considerations involved in the museum’s collection.

Laura van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum said that, with its “complicated colonial history”, it was important to “ensure we did not shy away from difficult conversations”.

Museum staff have spent the summer removing 120 human remains from display, including the South American tsantsa (also known as the “shrunken heads”), Naga trophy heads and an Egyptian mummy of a child, all of which are now in storage.

There are still more than 2,800 human remains at the museum which said it is “actively reaching out to descendant communities over the next years to find the most appropriate way to care for these complex items”.

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Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University - Tsantsa (shrunken heads) being put into storage. July 2020. Pic: Hugh Warwick
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The tsantsa are among the items put into storage indefinitely. Pic: Hugh Warwick

Ms Van Broekhoven said: “Our audience research has shown that visitors often saw the museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’.

“Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s values today.”

The decision comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a re-examination of the British Empire and the objects taken from conquered lands.

Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University. Pic: Ian Wallman
Image:
Much of the museum’s collection is closely tied to British Imperial expansion. Pic: Ian Wallman

Tsantsa were made by Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and Peru to capture the power of one of the multiple souls that they believed their men had. The power was used by the group to strengthen themselves and increase harvests.

Pitts Rivers Museum acquired its collection of shrunken heads between 1884 and 1936.

Instead of the remains, visitors will see a display on the museum’s human remain collections, its work towards restitution and an explanation of why the objects are no longer displayed.

This will include how they formed “part of problematic past academic practices of measuring skulls and bones, and how those are linked to racist ideas about superiority and inferiority”, the museum said.