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Pitt Rivers collaborates with Shuar representatives to review shrunken heads display

The Pitt Rivers Museum is reviewing its display of shrunken heads after concerns were raised about the sensitivity of the display. The museum has engaged in a project with representatives of the Shuar people of the Amazon rainforest and the San Francisco University in Quito to consider the future of the exhibits.

They hope to collaborate to do further research on the shrunken heads, known as tsantas, through DNA analysis and CT scanning.

Shuar representatives are concerned that the current display does not accurately represent their cultural practices.

The tsantas are part of a case exploring the ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’. On display since the 1940s, they are one of the museum’s most famous exhibits.

The tsantas were made by Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America, for whom they have significant religious meaning. Heads were taken and preserved to obtain the powers associated with that person. However, the practice stopped in the 1960s.

The museum’s director, Laura van Broekhoven, is considering all options, including repatriation of the tsantas to Ecuador. However, through working with the Shuar to ensure the cultural significance of the tsantas is properly explained, the museum may continue to exhibit the tsantas in an updated display.

A spokesperson for the Pitt Rivers Museum said: “As we believe in open dialogue, mutual respect and understanding, we are entering into these discussions with an open attitude on what should be done.

“From our initial discussions in Cuenca, it is clear that it is important to work on this together and to foreground self-representation. What we feel is important is to ensure that the story we tell is one that engages in historically accurate and contemporary relevant ways with this practice and the fact that objects were collected.”

“The PRM is aware that is needs to review the way that human remains are displayed.”

The tsantas were acquired by the museum from six different collectors. However, in several cases little more is known about their origins and how they came to the museum. There are some concerns that the tsantas brought to the Pitt Rivers and other museums may have been obtained through violence on the part of collectors.

Laura Van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, told The Art Newspaper : “Many think of these objects as bizarre, gruesome, barbaric, a ‘freak’ show. The practice of headhunting, instead of being better understood, is misunderstood entirely. The Shuar communities do not want to be represented in these stereotypical ways.”

The museum is also hoping to invite Shuar representatives and Ecuadorian researchers to Oxford. They submitted a request for funding to the Arts and Humanities research council for a project entitled Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Relevancies: co-creating futures in the ethnographic museum. In this project they envisage undertaking research and co-curation with Shuar representatives and co-curators.

However, collaborative work with the Shuar has encountered challenges due to the current circumstances of the Shuar community, who number about 40,000.

A spokesperson for the museum said: “We hope to make progress soon but we also know that these projects depend on many external and internal factors that are beyond anyone’s control. In this case, one of the difficulties is that the Shuar are now involved in difficult and divisive decision-making processes over concessions concerning mineral exploitation on their lands and we have not had a chance to progress a further visit of Shuar representatives to the Museum as had been hoped.”

Similar questions about the ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ exhibits have been raised previously. A few months ago, the museum removed two scalps from the display after Native American communities objected, saying their culture was not being accurately represented.

The discussions come during a wider debate about the display of human remains in museums. The University itself has previously returned Māori and Australian Aboriginal remains to their communities from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The museum is also considering how best to fulfil obligations set out in 2005 government guidance on human remains, which states: “Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that is makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way. Displays should always be accompanied by sufficient explanatory material.”

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