Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

Citing the exhibit’s reinforcement of “racist and stereotypical thinking,” the Pitt Rivers Museum moved a total of 120 human remains into storage

Two people in white lab coats and gloves; left, person with curly hair, and right, person with short balding hair, are in the process of removing tsantsa, small fist-sized skulls with long hair, from the display case
Curators removed the tsantsa, or shrunken heads, from display in July. Hugh Warwick / Pitt Rivers Museum

Museums have long served as repositories for the spoils of colonialism—and the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is no exception. Now, amid global protests against systemic racism, the English cultural institution has announced plans to reckon with its imperialist history by permanently removing a number of “contentious displays” from public view.

At the height of the British Empire’s power in the 19th and 20th centuries, officials employed unethical tactics such as violence and looting to gather millions of artifacts from colonies around the world. Some of these questionably acquired objects ended up in glass display cases at the Pitt Rivers, which houses more than 500,000 items—including some 2,800 human remains—in its collections.

One particular group of items has attracted much attention over the years: 12 tsantsa, or shrunken human and animal heads, created by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America and acquired by the museum between 1884 and 1936. Of the seven human heads in its holdings, the Pitt Rivers believes that three are “authentic.” The other four are probably forgeries crafted out of bodies stolen from morgues or hospitals, reports David Batty for the Guardian.

Since going on display in the 1940s, the heads have been one of the museum’s most prominent attractions. But when the Oxford institution reopens on September 22, the tsantsa will no longer be on view. Per a statement, staff have removed a total of 120 human remains from display, moving them to storage as part of a museum-wide effort to decolonize the Pitt Rivers’ collections.

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford Ian Wallman / Pitt Rivers Museum
Previously, the tsantsa and other human remains were displayed in a case entitled "Treatment of Dead Enemies." The Guardian reports that three of the museum's tsantsa are though to be "authentic," while four are probably forgeries made out of human bodies stolen from morgues and hospitals. Hugh Warwick / Pitt Rivers Museum
An exterior view of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England Ian Wallman / Pitt Rivers Museum

“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,’” says museum director Laura Van Broekhoven in the statement. “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 Shuar and Achuar communities created tsantsa to trap an individual’s soul and gain strength from it. (Though commonly described as such, these items were not considered “war trophies,” according to the museum.) During the 19th and 20th centuries, tsantsa were perceived as valuable collector’s items; colonialists would often trade one gun per shrunken head—an exchange that led to a marked increase in violence in many regions.

“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,” say Shuar Indigenous leaders Miguel Puwáinchir and Felipe Tsenkush in the statement. “Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without fully realizing the implications.”

No plans for the repatriation of the tsantsa have been made as of yet, but the museum is working with Shuar delegates from the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito to discuss “how they want to be represented in the Museum and how they advise their cultural heritage is cared for,” per the statement.

Curators removed 120 human remains from public view ahead of the museum's September 22 reopening. Hugh Warwick / Pitt Rivers Museum
The museum will highlight new displays and wall text that discuss the colonial history of its collections. Hugh Warwick / Pitt Rivers Museum

In addition to the tsantsa, the Pitt Rivers moved a group of Naga trophy heads and the mummy of an Egyptian child into storage. The institution plans to reach out to descendant communities around the world to assess how best to care for the human remains—many of which are considered sacred by their native communities, points out Danica Kirka for the Associated Press—still in its collections.

The decision to remove human remains from view followed an “ethical review” started in 2017. Per the AP, the move was also informed by the recently renewed Black Lives Matter movement and widespread protests against racism, which have pushed museums across the United Kingdom and the rest of the world to reconsider the racist, colonialist pasts embedded in their collections and monuments.

When the museum reopens following an extended shutdown sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors will be greeted by new displays explaining how previously presented artifact labels “offer a very limited insight into complex historical processes and can reinforce racism and stereotypes,” according to the statement.

In the future, the Guardian reports, the Pitt Rivers plans to commission work by contemporary artists who hail from the countries represented in the museum’s collections.

“A lot of people might think about the removal of certain objects or the idea of restitution as a loss,” says Marenka Thompson-Odlum, a research associate who helped curate many of the new displays, in the statement, “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 decolonization.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.