The Pitt Rivers removes its controversial displays of human remains after an internal review of ethics and its colonial legacy
In a museum packed with anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological objects, for many visitors to the Pitt Rivers, the most gruesomely fascinating objects have been the trophy skulls, shrunken heads and other human remains that have a complex history of indigenous belief, colonial-era trade and conquest.
However, their display and interpretation has long been a sensitive and controversial issue and now, after over 70 years on show, the Museum has acted to remove them following a comprehensive programme of work to deeply engage with its colonial legacy.
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As one of the leading and best-known museums of its kind in the world, the Pitt Rivers’ collection of more than 500,000 items, was acquired over more than 130 years, and features objects ranging from musical instruments, weapons and masks to textiles, jewellery and tools covering all periods of human existence.
However, the Museum says it now acknowledges that its history and many of its objects are “closely tied to British Imperial expansion and a colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from the world over” and that the “processes of colonial collecting were often violent and inequitable towards those peoples being colonised.”
From 2017-2020, the museum’s director, Laura Van Broekhoven, led a comprehensive Internal Review of Displays and Programming from an Ethical Perspective to tackle these issues. Both internal staff and external stakeholders were involved, in particular community delegates from different parts of the world as well as locals including students and people from immigrant communities.
The review looked at past practices and the nature of its collecting, display and interpretation and the effects those have today. The Museum’s historic labels, some of which included racist and derogatory language, commonly used at the time, also came under scrutiny.
Some display cases were chosen for review as they include looted objects, or featured human remains on display. Others included objects considered sacred or secret by Indigenous Peoples, such as the Shuar tsantsa (shrunken heads).
“With the Museum’s complicated colonial history, it was important for us to lead this Ethical Review and to ensure we did not shy away from difficult conversations,” explains Van Broekhoven who says the implementation of the review is “part of the Museum’s strategic plan to bring its public-facing spaces more in line with its contemporary ethos of actively working with communities, and respecting different ways of being as we become a welcoming space for all”.
“Given the scope of what is required, the implementation of changes will be part of a long-term programme of curatorial work that will engage many stakeholders and stretch out over years, probably decades to come. But given its unique position, gradual change has always been part of curating the Pitt Rivers Museum.”
One immediate result of the review is the removal of 120 human remains from open display including the South American tsantsas, Naga trophy heads and an Egyptian mummy of a child, all of which have now been moved into storage.
Made by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America, the Shuar tsantsa or ‘shrunken heads’ are formed from human, sloth or monkey heads and were much sought-after items for collectors, who would pay one gun for one head. It is thought this contributed to a steep increase in violent warfare locally at the height of 19th and 20th century collecting.
However, although the indigenous Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru made some of the heads, the majority were produced as forgeries to feed demand and were most likely made from bodies taken from morgues.
The Pitt Rivers Museum acquired their collection of tsantsas between 1884 and 1936 and, although not part of the original displays, they have been on display since the 1940s.
“Visitors often saw the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’”
When the museum re-opens on September 20, new interpretation will offer visitors an insight into the way the Museum formed its collections and how some of the historic labels obscured more deeper understanding of other cultures by offering only a very limited insight into complex historical processes that can reinforce racism and stereotypes.
“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’,” adds Van Broekhoven.
“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 removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and codes of ethics.”
New labels and corresponding films and podcasts will help visitors engage more deeply with stories through the voices of artists, Indigenous leaders and local stakeholders from Australia, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Oxford.
The Museum still stewards over 2800 human remains from different parts of the world and is actively reaching out to descendant communities over the next years to find the most appropriate way to care for these complex items.
While some museums have returned human remains – including some tsantsa shrunken heads – to their origin country of Peru, at the moment there has not been a request for the return of the Pitt Rivers tsantsa. However the Museum says it “remains open” to any discussions about their repatriation and will continue in conversation with Shuar delegates over the next years.
Pitt Rivers Museum is open from 22 September. Entry is free entry but pre-booking is required. For more information visit www.prm.ox.ac.uk
Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum is the University of Oxford's museum of anthropology and world archaeology. Founded in 1884 following a gift to the University from General Pitt-Rivers it retains its unique period atmosphere with dense displays of artefacts, many in the original wooden display cabinets. As a result, it has…