LONDON (AP) – Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum has removed its famous collection of shrunken heads and other human remains from the screen as part of a broader effort to “decolonize” its collections.
Known as one of the world’s leading institutions of anthropology, ethnography and archeology, the museum faced charges of racism and cultural insensitivity because it continued to display the subjects.
“Our audience survey has shown that visitors often saw the museum’s exhibits of human remains as proof that other cultures were ‘wild’, ‘primitive’ or ‘cruel’,” said museum director Laura Van Broekhoven. “Instead of enabling our visitors to gain a deeper understanding of each other̵
The decision comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a re-examination of the British Empire and the items abducted from conquered lands. Oxford itself has been the site of such protests, with protesters demanding the removal of a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
Some of the 130-year-old museum’s collection, including human remains, was acquired during the expansion of the British Empire in line with a colonial mandate to collect and classify artifacts from around the world.
The museum said it began an ethical review of the collection in 2017. This included discussions with the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Peru and representatives of the original community of Shuar about the so-called shrunken heads, known as the tsantsa of Shuar.
The museum eventually decided to remove 120 human remains, including the tsantsas, the Naga trophy heads and an Egyptian mummy of a child.
When Pitt Rivers closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff took the opportunity to make the changes. The museum reopens September 22 with interpretive displays explaining why the artifacts were removed, new labels on many artifacts, and a discussion of how historical labels sometimes obscured the understanding of the cultures that produced them.
“Many people may think of removing certain objects or the idea of recovery as a loss, but what we are trying to show is that we are losing nothing but making room for more expansive stories,” said Marenka Thompson-Odlum, a research assistant. who curated several of the new displays. “That’s the core of decolonization.”
The human remains have been moved to storage. The museum says it plans to reach out to future communities around the world on how to take care of approx. 2,800 human remains left in its care.