LONDON (AP) — Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum has removed its famous collection of shrunken heads and other human remains from display as part of a broader effort to “decolonize’’ its collections.
The museum, known as one of the world’s leading institutions for anthropology, ethnography and archaeology, had faced charges of racism and cultural insensitivity because it continued to display the items.
“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’,’’ museum director Laura Van Broekhoven said. “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 decision comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a re-examination of the British Empire and the objects carried away from conquered lands. Oxford itself has been the site of such protests, where demonstrators demanded the removal of a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
Some of the 130-year-old museum’s collection, including the human remains, was acquired during the expansion of the British Empire in line with a colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from all over the world.
The museum said it began an ethical review of its collection in 2017. This included discussions with the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Peru, and representatives of the Shuar indigenous community about the so-called shrunken heads, known as tsantsa by the Shuar.
The museum ultimately decided to remove 120 human remains, including the tsantsas, 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 Sept. 22 with interpretive displays explaining why the items were removed, new labels on many artifacts and a discussion of how historic labels sometimes obscured understanding of the cultures that produced them.
“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,” said Marenka Thompson-Odlum, a research associate who curated several of the new displays. “That is at the heart of decolonization.”
The human remains have been moved into storage. The museum says it plans to reach out to descendant communities around the world about how to care for some 2,800 human remains that remain in its care.
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