As a student or tourist in Oxford, you are likely to visit the famous Pitt Rivers Museum. You will be awed by the ‘period atmosphere’ as you enter the court. Almost cathedral-like, it is stunning, while also slightly intimidating. As you wander round, you will notice that the artefacts are sorted under labels such as ‘The Human Figure in Art’ or ‘Charms for Animals’. This is a signature feature of the museum: curation by ‘type’ rather than geographical, historical or cultural context. It dates back to the founder’s desire to demonstrate “connection of form” in “the arts and implements of modern savages”. You might notice children congregating and gawking at the famous tsantsas (shrunken heads). You might wonder at the hand-written labels for certain objects – some dating back as far as the 1890s. You might, at the end of all this, be left with questions.

Sorting by type is interesting, but it deprives the museum displays of much contextual information. When they do have themed displays, the signs often lack any postcolonial narrative – there’s one about opium in China without mention of British involvement or the Opium Wars. A sign by a large Blunderbuss says the “East India Company had a considerable need for arms… its valuable goods needed protecting”. The emphasis on ‘need’ assumes the righteousness of the British. There is an implication that British goods were under threat of being stolen by Indians, when arguably the Blunderbusses were used for quite the opposite.

More importantly, there’s the question of whether colonially-acquired and sometimes culturally sensitive items should even be on display. World famous, with the largest collection of archaeological and anthropological items in the country, what message about Empire does the museum project to children, students, tourists from all around the world?
Oxford is undergoing a day of reckoning with its colonial heritage and public perception in this way. Recent years have seen the birth and growth of campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’. There is now an active conversation around decolonising physical spaces and syllabi at Oxford – the Pitt Rivers is one of the most obvious of such spaces.

Common Ground, a movement “protesting the structural legacy of Empire at the University of Oxford” have been major players in the decolonisation discussion. Museum representatives spoke at their panel on Rhodes and decolonisation last year, and they are partnering with the museum on a project called ‘Oxford and Colonialism’. Common Ground told Cherwell: “The Pitt Rivers Museum is an imperial institution, as a matter of historical as well as contemporary fact. It was set up to archive artefacts gathered under imperial conditions. We do not think enough has been done to highlight to visitors where the placement of objects is objectionable to Indigenous and other colonised peoples. Inaccuracies in descriptions remain uncorrected. Many of the displays jumble together objects from very different locations and periods. It is therefore hard to say that the Museum serves a positive educational purpose. We welcome long overdue repatriation efforts. But a fuller reckoning with objects on display, how they are arranged, and how they are described remains urgent.”

Common Ground are right in asserting that little has been done in highlighting these issues within the collection, a by-product, perhaps, of its traditional atmosphere. Unlike the aims of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, however, this statement doesn’t advocate removal or closure. The idea that “not enough has been done” and the need for a “fuller reckoning” suggest the possibility of a positive role for the Museum. I spoke with Dr. Laura Van Broekhoven, the museum’s director, to hear about how the museum is reckoning with its space and history. Can it be decolonised?

Pitt Rivers museum. Photographed by Isaac Pockney

Dr. Van Broekhoven says she started her directorship “with an agenda of decolonising”, when “Rhodes Must Fall was still at its height, and the museum had been tweeted about as ‘One of the most violent spaces in Oxford’”. New to Oxford, she was surprised that the University “did not always seem sure of how to engage with the conversation”, despite decolonisation movements going on in many parts of Europe and the US at the time.

It’s true that Oxford hasn’t handled engagement with colonialism well in the past few years. Professor Nigel Biggar recently received criticism for writing an article in The Times entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’ and then announcing a five-year project at the McDonald Centre called ‘Ethics and Empire’, exploring in part “the positive case for colonialism”. A letter in opposition was signed by 58 Oxford academics.

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Oxford as an institution is often at odds with the majority of its own academic community. If so many scholars of empire discredit Biggar’s views, why is he spearheading this project, housed at Christ Church? A chief concern expressed in the letter was that Biggar’s work risks “being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship”.

A sign upon entrance to the Pitt Rivers states “The museum may look old, but its staff are doing some very up-to-date things with the collections!”. For visitors though, this “very-up-to-date” work is not what represents the institution. I ask Dr. Van Broekhoven about her priorities, in terms of work done within the public museum space and behind-the-scenes research and projects. She says “The museum has been doing some very exciting cutting-edge work at the back-end side working with Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ+, Refugee and other stakeholder communities. Our teaching and publications are highly critical and incorporate post-colonial thinking.” Just like the ‘Ethics and Empire’ case, it seems there is an imbalance: progressive academic work in the background, with the public getting a different picture. Translating this work into the main galleries, the director says, “is our main challenge currently.”

In terms of the curation style, or “jumbling together of objects from very different locations and periods”, Dr. Van Broekhoven says: “I have not had people complain about objects being arranged by type. People generally seem to be glad they are not just confined to adhered geographical or chronological identities.

“In some cases, like with the Ka’apor, who I worked with when I was still in the Netherlands, they see the objects we had on display as ambassadors, that speak to people across the globe of their existence. They felt that here at least they were not being silenced, erased. Here they were represented.”

It seems as thought this curative style is popular with the public too. At the time of writing this, on TripAdvisor, the museum is rated as the seventh best thing to do in Oxford, with 94% of reviews having four or five stars. One reviewer (from the UK, as most of the reviewers are) states that there is “lots of spooky stuff to look at”. Is the museum popular for the right reasons, or does it promote a circus-like fascination with the ‘spooky’, with otherness? Is the museum’s messaging still trapped within its 19th century origins? I refer back to General Pitt-Rivers’ original intentions with the collection and ask Dr. Van Broekhoven if she thinks the curation risks homogenising non-European cultures as those of ‘savages’:

“The objectives of the collection as described at end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century were highly problematic and I cannot but stress this enough. It is a misconception though, that the museum has not changed, and that it excludes European cultures. Approximately 90,000 objects are from Europe (a fifth of the collection) of which nearly 50,000 from the UK.

“We need to do more research into our (unconscious) messaging. I notice people, at times, don’t even see the nuances we bring into the displays (such as corsets, breast implants, braces) but focus on the things they expect to see as exotic in the very same case: Chinese shoes, neck-rings, etc. We need to carefully consider how we represent, how we avoid cognitive dissonance. We consciously do not try to homogenise, we want to present the different solutions people have found to solve common problems. The question is, do we succeed? For some, we do. Others seem to find the displays proof of otherness.”

Whether the displays do encourage this view, or people just look to confirm preconceptions, this affirmation of otherness needs combatting by the museum. Modernising their public image as well as the collection is important: if people expect to see ‘spooky’, they will. Many likely see the Pitt Rivers as a strange colonial-era museum in elitist, antiquated Oxford. Even if these reputations are undeserving, Oxford and the museum should proactively attempt to improve them.

Dr. Van Broekhoven says “Part of our strategic plan is to do an ethical review of the museum displays and we need to be more explicit in how we talk about colonial violence.

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“We have made a list of the cases we feel need urgent attention and will be working with critical friends and stakeholders to think with us along these lines. Some cases we are conscious of ourselves: those with looted objects, with human remains on display. Others include objects considered sacred or secret by Indigenous Peoples for example.”

Working with Indigenous Peoples and underrepresented communities is key to making the museum an inclusive space going forward – the director says it’s unacceptable that the museum “does not feel like a welcoming space for some”. She gives numerous examples of communities they are in (or have had) dialogue with, and states that “we have several requests for repatriation that we are working on.” The “urgent attention” sounds promising but I am not given any concrete time-scales. While agreeing with Common Ground that repatriation requests are “long overdue”, Dr. Van Broekhoven stresses that “Each one is complex, time-consuming and we need to consider very carefully what to do.”

The First Peoples’ Collective is a collective of former and current Indigenous students in Oxford. I spoke to two of their members. Sarah Bourke (DPhil student in Anthropology, St John’s) says that more work is needed:

“The museum needs to work towards reducing the power imbalance between themselves and source communities. This is one of the most important steps in decolonising these kinds of spaces. At the moment they are deciding what the conversation is, and how it is taking place at the museum. More needs to be done to give communities decision-making power over what happens to objects and the conversations taking place at the museum.”

Jessyca Hutchens (DPhil student in Art Theory, Balliol) acknowledges “promising actions such as the recent acquisition of Christian Thompson’s work” but similarly states that “much deeper structural changes are needed, beyond contextualisation and artistic response, that are centred around far more proactive engagement with all source communities to determine how and whether objects should be displayed, cared for, or kept by the museum at all.”

Hutchens also argues for “much more critical contextualisation of the collections”, and not just the signs in the museum – but online too. “To take an obvious example, at present there is next to nothing that reflects upon colonial histories or power asymmetries on the introductory pages of the museum website.”

I ask Dr. Van Broekhoven about the concept of Mahnmal, (monuments of shame and warn- ing against colonial violence), mentioned by Professor Dan Hicks at Common Ground’s panel last year. Should the museum become a Mahnmal?

She says that while certain cases “might very well be re-shaped into Mahnmals”, the museum itself should not be reduced to just “a product of colonial violence. It would not do justice to its past or present, wouldn’t help reinterpret it, and would erase the agency of many individuals on both sides of the story.

“I would like to learn from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian on how we can be spaces for redress, learning and re-shaping relations. “We have much work cut out for us.”

Earlier this very month the Pitt Rivers held a conference on museum decolonisation, attended by over 100 practitioners, academics, artists, and students. Organiser Faye Belsey says that the two days of presentations revolved around having “more honest and open dialogue with our audiences about the troubled and complex histories of museum spaces and collections. The conference provided a very thought provoking and stimulating discussion and contributed greatly to enabling and further- ing the decolonisation process in Oxford and beyond.”

With museum directors, academics, advocacy groups and students all agreeing in principle, decolonisation seems more a matter of execution than persuasion at this stage. This is promising. The Pitt Rivers now needs to follow other museums in making it a reality. Dr. Van Broekhoven reiterates that decolonisation’s a long process, not a single action. She says that Wayne Modest, a friend and colleague from the Netherlands, compared museums to elephants: “To change an elephant’s course, huge effort is required, nudging, pulling, and still change may never come. “Maybe Oxford is like an elephant too…”

Perhaps its course has changed, and we are just yet to see it. Until then though, let’s all keep pulling.