The decision comes as part of a museum-wide effort to "decolonize" the collections on display

By Georgia Slater
September 17, 2020 11:37 AM
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Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum has removed a collection of shrunken heads on display over concerns that they "reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking."

On Monday, the acclaimed museum shared in a statement that visitors will see a number of "contentious displays" removed from its exhibits when its doors reopen to the public on Sept. 22.

The museum — which is one of the leading museums of anthropology, ethnography, and archaeology in the world — has removed 1230 human remains from its display as part of a museum-wide effort to "decolonize" the institution.

According to The Washington Post, decolonizing is described as "a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonizers."

Among the remains removed are the South American tsantas, also known as the "shrunken heads," which were acquired by the museum between 1884 and 1936.

While the heads have been one of the museum's most popular attractions since the 1940s, museum director Laura Van Broekhoven said that many visitors found the remains as "a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome'."

According to the museum, during the 19th and 20th centuries, the shrunken heads were collector's items and were often traded by colonialists. These exchanges led "to a steep increase in violent warfare" at the time.

"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," she continued. "The removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics.”

Ian Wallman/Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The Shuar and Achuar communities — who created the tsantas — have long argued the removal of the heads from museums.

“We don’t want to be thought of as dead people to be exhibited in a museum, described in a book, or recorded on film… Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without fully realizing the implications," Shuar indigenous leaders, Miguel Puwáinchir and Felipe Tsenkush, explained in the statement.

The museum began an ethical review of its artifacts in 2017 in order to identify and prioritize 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."

Marenka Thompson-Odlum, a research associate who helped to curate the new displays, explained that removing the artifacts should not be considered a loss.

"What we are trying to show is that we aren’t losing anything but creating space for more expansive stories," she said. "That is at the heart of decolonisation. We are allowing new avenues of story-telling and ways of being to be highlighted.”

According to the museum statement, Pitt Rivers still houses more than 2,800 human remains and is continuing to reach out to descendant communities to "find the most appropriate way to care for these complex items."

When the museum reopens later this month, informational signs will be displayed in place of the artifacts to explain their removal.