Posted on September 16, 2020

Oxford Museum Removes Shrunken Heads Made by Amazon Headhunting Tribe

Katie Weston, Daily Mail, September 14, 2020

An Oxford museum has removed shrunken heads made by an Amazon headhunting tribe after bosses said exhibiting human remains ‘reinforces racist and stereotypical thinking’.

The famed Pitt Rivers Museum took down the collection, alongside 113 other human remains, ahead of its reopening on 22 September following the Covid-19 lockdown.

It comes after the museum’s director, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, said the displays go against its ‘core values’ after a study showed they depicted other cultures as ‘savage, primitive or gruesome’.

The Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America made the shrunken heads, or ‘tsantas’, as they believed it would harness the spirit of the enemy and prevent the soul from avenging his death.

Curators earlier said talks came about to remove the collection after it was labelled a ‘freak show’ by a visitor.

The museum was also contacted by the Shuar people in the Amazon rainforest about the shrunken heads, obtained through six collectors between 1884 and 1936, which they said are of religious importance.

Pitt Rivers was previously forced to remove two scalps from display after complaints by Native American communities who claimed their culture has been misrepresented.

The latest removal comes as part of a three-year internal review from the museum to ‘deeply engage with its colonial legacy’ and ‘inform a plan for decolonisation’.

It is recommended in the government’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums: ‘Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that is makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way.

‘Displays should always be accompanied by sufficient explanatory material.’

Social media users reacted to the decision, with one posting: ‘My most vivid childhood memory is seeing the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. It sparked a curiosity for the world that’s never left me.

‘My children also inspired. If we delete history then we’ll never understand our future.’

Another wrote: ‘The shrunken heads were always the biggest attraction for me. This is a shame.’

But others praised the move, with a third person tweeting: ‘The right decision. Well done.’

A fourth added: ‘Every year I’ve taken my history undergraduates on a field trip to the Pitt Rivers to spur a session on the ethics of displaying human remains.

‘I’m so glad I can’t do this anymore – unquestionably the right decision.’

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 removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics.’

Research associate Marenka Thompson-Odlum added: ‘A lot of people might think about the removal of certain objects or the idea of restitution as a loss, but what we are trying to show is that we aren’t losing anything but creating space for more expansive stories.

‘That is at the heart of decolonisation. We are allowing new avenues of story-telling and ways of being to be highlighted.’