A shrunken view of Truth and Knowledge

What's behind the latest bout of handwringing over the display of shrunken human heads in a museum in Oxford?

Maria Grasso

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Recent reports suggest that some of the staff at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the museum’s famous ‘shrunken heads’ exhibit. They’re planning a review of the exhibit with an eye for making it more ‘respectful’, and there are even rumours of the heads being repatriated to South America. How true is this? And who do the shrunken heads really belong to? I visited the Museum to find out.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, located in the east of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, was founded in 1884, when General Augustus Pitt Rivers donated a collection of more than 18,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from all around the world. The present-day collection is made up of more than half a million artefacts, including the remains of around 2,000 humans.

On the first floor, the mysterious, dimly-lit display titled ‘The Treatment of Dead Enemies’ contains the ‘shrunken heads’, or tsantsas, from the Upper Amazon region between Peru and Ecuador. It is the Museum’s most famous and popular exhibit. Traditionally, men from the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna tribes cut off their defeated enemies’ heads and shrunk them as ‘part of a ritual in which the spirit of the victim was pacified and the victim was made part of the killer’s group’ (1).

Shrunken head from Pitt
Rivers Museum

However, Dr Laura Peers, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and a member of the UK government committee that published a report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the handling of human remains, recently called into question the ‘ethics’ of the exhibit. She told the Oxford Times that she felt ‘uncomfortable’ with aspects of the shrunken heads display, and that she ‘personally would like to know more what the communities in Ecuador and Peru feel about it’. ‘This is an awkward area where personal views and professional training become mixed’, said Dr Peers (2).

In a recent statement to the press, Michael O’Hanlon, director of the Museum, said: ‘The Pitt Rivers Museum tries to tread a careful line between acknowledging the very considerable public interest in these historical displays on the one hand and the shifting ethical sensitivities on the other…. The display has been changed recently and we will continue to keep it under review.’ (3) The Oxford student newspaper Cherwell reports that the ‘controversial exhibit of human remains could be permanently scrapped’ if it does not pass ‘a formal review to determine whether it meets the government’s ethical guidelines’ (4). A spokesperson for the Museum tells me there are no plans to scrap the exhibit, but it is ‘under review’.

Why is there a seeming discomfort and sensitivity among Museum workers over their own most popular exhibit? At the Museum, visitors marvel at the shrunken heads, and balk at the idea that their arrangement should be changed to be more respectful or that they should be sent elsewhere. ‘The heads are educational. No one here wants them off display’, said one visitor. Another argued that ‘the notion that we have to communicate with the communities in South America is ridiculous’: ‘This museum belongs to the public, to everyone.’

The most striking thing about the recent controversy is that it emanates from within the Pitt Rivers Museum itself, rather than from any demands from overseas. It is the museum world’s own self-doubt and uncertainty about what it is right to display these days, not loud demands from tribal descendants on other continents, that gives rise to tortured debates over objects.

In 1987, following complaints from members of the Maori community, the Maori moko mokai (tattooed heads) were removed from the Pitt Rivers Museum. In June 1990, skeletal remains were returned to Australian Aboriginal communities following a request for repatriation. Even in these instances, where the demand for the return of objects seems to have come from indigenous communities themselves, changing Western views of what museums are for played a key role in the rise of repatriation demands. In the 1980s and 90s, the trend towards repatriation was driven more by intellectuals and institutions within the West, especially amongst the cultural left, than it was by Native communities in America, Africa or Australia. According to Russell Thornton, a professor of anthropology who was working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC when that museum first contacted tribes about repatriation, most of the Native peoples ‘did not respond’ because they were ‘generally focused on local issues’.

Now, the shrunken head controversy takes the issue of return to a new level. No one in Ecuador or Peru is calling for the repatriation of the heads or for the exhibit to be arranged more ethically and respectfully. Rather, ‘discomfort’ with showing artefacts, especially human remains, comes from within the Museum itself – and in this sense, it reveals far more about Western cultural elites’ own uncertainty than it does about Native peoples’ needs and demands.

As the Museum website explains, following the DCMS report on the handling of human remains, ‘staff have considered the ethics of displaying human remains, and have begun to redisplay cases that include human remains to ensure that the intended educational and cultural information is communicated well and that the displays are respectful to both visitors and the dead’ (5). The controversy over the Shuar tsantsas shows that feelings of offence among either visitors or Native peoples are pre-empted by nervous museums. Museums seem to project their own feelings of discomfort with certain remains and how they should be displayed on to others. Such an attitude could have a dire impact on the expansion of knowledge and culture, and on the role and purpose of museums today.

The rise of the issue of repatriation within Western circles reflects the decline of Enlightenment values in intellectual thought. The relativistic notion that there is no such thing as ‘Truth’, but rather that there are many ‘truths’, means that museum exhibitions that claim to reveal something true and meaningful about man’s history and development can be looked upon as elitist. The disdain for Western civilisation and its gains that is quite widespread today has given rise to a celebration of earlier, more ‘simple’ civilisations and their mystical belief systems and habits. Consequently, any Western museum that displays objects from other cultures can feel itself under pressure to justify what it is doing or even to pack the objects away or return them to their ‘rightful owners’.

Furthermore, the notion that certain objects would be better placed in the hands of Native peoples is based on the patronising idea that these peoples are ‘empty’ or ‘unfulfilled’ because they are missing an item their ancestors owned 200 or 300 years ago. It is a fatalistic view of humans that believes they need to bury old artefacts in order to feel complete and truly human.

In my view, these shrunken heads belong in a museum like the Pitt Rivers Museum, and nowhere else. The fact that some Amazonian tribes shrunk the heads of their defeated enemies is a fact of history and as such the proper object of knowledge. In a Museum, by necessity not their ‘natural’ or original environment, the shrunken heads assume a greater purpose and meaning than they would if they were to be returned to South America or buried somewhere. Museums are supposed to be bastions of knowledge: they exist so that we can learn about the world. The rare beauty of the Pitt Rivers Museum lies in the fact that, unlike many other anthropological museums, its displays are arranged typologically rather than geographically. Such a layout is intended to show us the universal parallels that can be drawn between different human cultures, to demonstrate the development of humanity through the ages. The shrunken heads play an important part in the ‘human story’ told by the Museum.

Indeed, with its cleverly arranged myriad artefacts, the Pitt Rivers Museum itself seems to speak out against the politically correct curators currently wringing their hands over certain objects by testifying to another universal: man’s never-ending thirst for knowledge and discovery.

Maria Grasso is researching a DPhil on the decline of political activism in Western Europe at Nuffield College, Oxford University.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins explained why museums’ pre-occupation with returning remains is threatening research and why their obsession with the dark side of humanity is unhealthy. Josie Appleton has had a lot to say on the subject, questioning why museums are re-branding themselves as environmental warriors,
interviewing the British Museum’s ex-director on popular institutions and their critical mass and stating that the object of art museums should be art. Or read more at: spiked issue Museums

(1) Human Remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum

(2) Should shrunken heads stay in museum?, Oxford Times, 14 February 2007

(3) ‘Re: Display of human remains in the “Treatment of Dead Enemies” display’, press statement from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University

(4) Shrunken heads could disappear, Cherwell 24, 23 February 2007

(5) Human Remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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