Human Remains, Shrunken Heads and the Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is a museum about people. It holds over half a million objects used by humans across the ages including human remains such as tsantsa or shrunken heads.
It also happens to be one of my favourite places in the whole world. Even the entrance to the museum is magical – in fact, it’s scarcely believable; a large, wooden door, fitted into a stone, pointed gothic arch, tucked into the back of another museum.
Between lockdowns 2 and 3, I took the opportunity to visit the museum. When I came to the case labelled Treatment of Dead Enemies – the case which holds the shrunken heads, I saw this sign.
I was completely relieved.
I have visited the Pitt Rivers Museum probably around 100 times in the past 10 years. I go for inspiration, to practice my drawing and to gain perspective. I usually go to look at my favourite things; writing implements, masks (not those kind), the seal intestine cloak, the weapons. I often give a passing glance at other artefacts, but it’s my favourite things that draw me back.
A few years after I’d moved to Oxford, I was surprised when somebody mentioned that they’d been to see the shrunken heads. I knew about their existence, of course, but I told the person that despite being a regular visitor, I’d never seen them. I assumed that they would be in a separate room, with a special door or perhaps even accessible only with special permission.
A school project led us to seek out the shrunken heads. That was when the shock hit me.
The shrunken heads were openly displayed in the same type of case as all the other stuff, on the ground floor, close to the public’s entrance to the museum. I’d been walking past them, giving them a cursory glance, for years!
My first reaction was anger and shame. I’d been disrespecting these human remains - somebody’s spouse, child, sibling, parent - for years without realising it.
The Shrunken Heads
The shrunken heads or tsantsa were acquired by the Pitt Rivers Museum from 5 different collectors between 1884 and 1936. Six of the tsantsa are human, the rest are animal. No clear information was handed over by the collectors to the Museum about the provenance of the tsantsa.
However, they are known to have come from the Xebaroe or Jivaro people, specifically from a group of the Jivaroan people called the Shuar, who are indigenous to Equador and Peru.
Shamefully, there is not much known about the purposes of the creation of genuine shrunken heads – though what is generally agreed on is that there is a spiritual aspect to the creation of tsantsa that benefits the creators. Tsantsa are sacred objects. Understandably, the Shuar people have been upset at the way tsantsa have been displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Those planning displays should consider how best to prepare visitors to view them respectfully, or to warn those who may not wish to see them at all. As a general principle, human remains should be displayed in such a way as to avoid people coming across them unawares. This might be in a specially partitioned or alcoved part of a gallery.
Remember, this guidance, applying to all museums in the UK, was published in 2005.
In March 2016, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven was appointed as Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum and in 2017, the Museum started an ethical review of its all its displays. The shrunken heads display was immediately identified as unethical.
The Museum used the summer of 2020 to put the tsantsa into storage and is now working with Shuar leaders, alongside the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador to decide how to handle the tsantsa going forward.
Why has it taken so long?
As an ordinary person, it’s hard for me to understand why it’s taken 15 years, from the publication date of the government guidance showing that the display was clearly unethical until the summer of 2020 for the tsantsa display to be removed - especially given the Shuar people themselves were unhappy about the way the tsantsa were displayed.
I disrespected the Shuar people’s sacred objects by walking past them with a cursory glance – as though they meant nothing and had no value. I’m sorry for that. I don’t even like to have my photo taken without my permission – so I cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the Shuar people to know that these most spiritual objects were treated this way.
I am grateful that the Museum’s current director has made this a priority.