Going, going, gone: One of the Pitt Rivers shrunken heads now removed from display

Shrunken heads, shrinking horizons

Alexander Larman talks to the controversial director of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum


This article is part of a Museums Special. You can also read Charles Saumarez Smith on The British Museum in the November issue of The Critic. If you subscribe today you can get three issues of the magazine for just £5.

Anyone who has read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy will recall a key scene in which the heroine, Lyra Belacqua, visits Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, described as possessing “a thousand and one jumbled trophies and relics and objects of magic and tools and weapons, and not only from the Arctic . . . but from every part of this world”.

Lyra, of course, inhabited a fictional parallel universe, but the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, was accurately sketched. Recently shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the year award, it remains one of the most fascinating collections of anthropological artefacts in the world. Its treasures include the object of Lyra’s quest, trepanned skulls, as well as arguably the museum’s most iconic single holding, the shuar tsantsa, or shrunken heads, which have both shocked and delighted successive generations of visitors.

The heads, made by the Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru, have been on display since the 1940s and have been seen either as ghoulish representations of apparently primitive peoples or as a fascinating insight into a different culture. But visitors will no longer have the opportunity to marvel at them. When the museum reopened after lockdown in September, the display had been removed.

On show but for how much longer? Visitors to the new-look Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

This was done not because of protests or public consultation, but, according to the museum’s director Laura van Broekhoven, as the result of a three-year ethical review of the museum’s holdings. This review, Dr van Broekhoven says, “was very much focused on identifying issues around labelling and interpretation in the displays from a coloniality perspective”. The museum aimed to “introduce new interpretations and voices, and reimagine what museum labels might look like in the future if we adopt a decolonial approach”.

Dr van Broekhoven argues that by removing the heads the museum is merely following 2005 government guidelines saying, “Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that it makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way.” So while it could be asserted that the museum’s most famous exhibit did indeed make such a “material contribution” to public understanding, and had done for decades, Dr Van Broekhoven claims the shrunken heads’ removal is both ethically necessary and long overdue. “We knew that this decision would be controversial and have received complaints about the removal of these objects,” she says. “But we have been overwhelmed by the many messages of support.”

She cites one praising the museum for its “extensive signage acknowledging problematic past research practices, outdated anthropological views that upheld sexist, racist and colonial ideologies, and the collection of artefacts from former British colonies”.

It was clearly a message that was close to her heart. Dr van Broekhoven’s lengthy and distinguished CV on the website of Oxford University, which owns the Pitt Rivers Museum, says: “Laura strives to develop a more equitable decolonised praxis in museums including issues around shared and negotiated authority; restitution, reconciliation and redress and the queering of exclusionary binaries and boundaries with relation to social justice and inclusion.”

It is possible to agree with everything Dr van Broekhoven says and still regret the decision to remove the shrunken heads

It is also no coincidence that Oxford has been at the centre of anti-colonialist protests such as Rhodes Must Fall. Dr van Broekhoven adds: “Because of the nature of the collections, the museum has been a site for recent Black Lives Matter activism and we know that museums and collections like ours cannot be separated from the systemic racism happening in Oxford, the UK and elsewhere. We also know that it is important not to be silent and that we have a responsibility to be held accountable for the colonial legacy in the collections and displays.”

She argues the Pitt Rivers Museum has never remained static and that none of the original displays still exist. “What does still remain, however, is the Grade 1 listed atmosphere, the collections that accumulated and the original labels and writing on the objects. Its directors have made changes to the museum that kept it relevant to its audiences and its times.

“If the role of any museum director was merely to steward collections ‘without intervention’, most museums would be a static collection. If previous PRM directors had seen this as their role, the museum would, most likely, have ceased to exist.” Dr van Broekhoven quotes Pitt Rivers himself, who said, “If my system were accepted by men of science, it would be continued. If it were not, there would be no object in continuing it. Moreover … it would be mischievous to hamper the future with ideas of the present.”

Hence, the case that once held the shrunken heads now contains a display explaining the museum’s work towards their restitution. But should the collection be split up and sent back whence it came? The director cites a five-year strategic plan, concluding in 2022, that will deal with the “often problematic histories” of many of the artefacts, and work towards “redress and restitution issues”.

It is just a shame that the Lyra Belacquas of the future will be denied the chance to see them

Decolonialisation is a hot-button issue at the moment, and Dr van Broekhoven points out that the museum’s work is being mirrored by the National Trust, among other institutions, and that it is not the imposition of twenty-first-century liberal sentiment on the museum’s original ethos.

She cites a 1905 “mission statement” which said the museum was intended “to explain the conservatism of savage and barbarous Races, and the pertinacity with which they retain their ancient types of art; to illustrate the arts of the Prehistoric times, by those of existing savages in corresponding stages of civilisation; to aid in the solution of the problem whether Man has arisen from a condition resembling the brutes, or fallen from a high state of perfection.”

Dr van Broekhoven says the debate over interpretation is not a recent fad. “For decades campaigners inside and outside museums have been thinking seriously about what these collections mean and how to represent them. This change in attitude has been brought about because of a change in society.

“People want ‘establishment organisations’ to be more responsive and accountable. We are responding to how our audiences want to engage with us and see no conflict between acknowledging our colonial legacy and devoting ourselves to making the museum a more inclusive and welcoming space for more people.”

It is possible to agree with everything Dr van Broekhoven says and still regret the decision to remove the shrunken heads. It is equally possible to believe that the long-term consequences of “decolonisation” may lead to the cultural heritage of Britain becoming vastly diminished. It is just a shame that the Lyra Belacquas of the future will be denied the chance to see them.

In The Subtle Knife, Lyra wonders of the trepanned heads: “What sort of person did this skull belong to, and why did he have those holes made in it?” Other curious adults and children will not, in this dimension at least, be allowed to look, to wonder and to make up their own minds as to its worth.

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