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Pitt Rivers Museum reopening will reveal critical changes to displays

Pitt Rivers Museum reopening will reveal critical changes to displays
The Shuar tsantsa or shrunken heads have been removed from display in Oxford. Image: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

When the Pitt Rivers Museum reopens its doors to the public on 22 September, visitors will see changes to some of the museum’s more contentious displays as part of a decolonisation process. In particular, human remains, including the popular ‘shrunken heads’, have been removed as part of an internal review of displays from an ethical perspective or "decolonisation process".

Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the leading and best-known museums of anthropology, ethnography and archaeology in the world and its collection of more than 500,000 items, acquired over more than 130 years, reflects an incredible breadth of culture. Objects range from musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery and tools, and cover all periods of human existence.

However, the history of the Museum, and many of its objects, is closely tied to British Imperial expansion and the colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from the world over. The processes of colonial collecting were often violent and inequitable towards those peoples being colonised.

Pitt Rivers Museum reopening will reveal critical changes to displays
The museum has some 500,000 items, many of which are "closely tied to British Imperial expansion". Image: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

This difficult history has led the Museum to engage more closely in acknowledging its past practices and the nature of its collecting, display and interpretation and the effects those have today. While such questions are being posed in museums across the world, the nature of Pitt Rivers’ history, collections and displays (its historic labels including racist and derogatory language, commonly used at the time) made these questions particularly pressing and especially challenging.

The review identified and prioritised displays that required urgent attention because of the derogatory language used in the historic case labels or because they played into stereotypical thinking about cultures across the globe that, as part of the colonial project, were seen as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. Some 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).

Over the summer, a team at the Museum have been carefully taking 120 Human Remains from open display including the well-known South American tsantas (also known as the ‘shrunken heads’), Naga trophy heads and Egyptian mummy of a child. All items have now been moved into storage. The Museum still stewards over 2,800 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.

Pitt Rivers Museum reopening will reveal critical changes to displays - Human Remains being taken into storage
Human Remains being taken into storage. Image: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

About the Shuar Tsanta or ‘Shrunken heads’

  • The Shuar Tsanta or ‘Shrunken heads’ were made by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America, they are formed from human, sloths or monkey heads.
  • They were much-sought for items to collect, and collectors would pay one gun for one head, leading to a steep increase in violent warfare locally at the height of the 19thand 20thcentury collecting.
  • They were not ‘war trophies’ but instead were taken to capture one of the multiple souls of the Shuar and Achuar people and thus seen to provide strength.
  • The Pitt Rivers Museum acquired their collection of tsantas between 1884 and 1936 and, although not part of the original displays, they have been on display since the 1940s.
  • Questions have been raised about their interpretation and the appropriateness of having these human remains on display.
  • Indigenous peoples have long argued against the public display of their ancestors’ remains.
  • Removing the remains from display brings the Museum’s practice in line with UK and international guidance and ethical codes.

Laura van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum 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 removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics."

Pitt Rivers Museum will reopen from 22 September. Entry is free entry but pre-booking is required