Oxford Museum Removes Collection of Human Remains

By RodneyHatfieldJr for Creepy

The Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum has relocated its world-famous collection of shrunken heads and other human remains from the 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 displaying the items.


Museum director Laura Van Broekhoven said “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. 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 historic decision comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a re-examination of the British Empire and the chief objects carried away from conquered lands. Oxford itself has been the site of such protests, where demonstrators demanded the removal of a dedicated statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Some of the 130-year-old museum’s extensive 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 initiated an ethical review of its collection in 2017. This included discussions with the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Peru, and official representatives of the Shuar indigenous community about the so-called shrunken heads, known as tsantsa by the Shuar. The historic museum ultimately decided to respectfully 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, the staff took the opportunity to implement 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. The human remains have been transported 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.


I am torn about this. On one hand, I am altogether against the exploitation of anyone. Always have been since being taught that as a small child. But on the other side, I am against disposing of any educational instruments or items that can further understanding and knowledge. These pieces are priceless. It distresses me to think these items may be buried. But if these things are to be displayed in their home country, then it goes back to whatever makes people happy. If these countries and communities want these remains back, then fine. But to destroy them is beyond evil. Never destroy history. When something is lost, it is gone forever. And we can not learn from our mistakes if our history is destroyed.  

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