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Special report: “Have you come to see the shrunken heads?” University Museums face pressure to decolonise

Ana Lanzon investigates.

Oxford University’s museums, the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean, have seen a growing appeal to revisit their spaces and museum practices with a contemporary eye in light of their colonial pasts. The protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the Black Lives Matter Movement put into question the UK’s colonial past and the legacy it perpetuates through its institutions. With this surge in conversation over the decolonisation of spaces came a revisiting of repatriation and colonial practice in museums. The Rhodes Must Fall movement advocated the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College in 2020, and described the Pitt Rivers Museums as “one of the most violent spaces in Oxford” in 2015. In 2022, the discussion on the UK’s colonial responsibility remains prevalent with repatriation of looted artefacts triggering what newspapers such as The Telegraph brand “culture wars”. However, have recent years seen a dwindle in momentum?

Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum and its ethnographic collection comprises one of the largest anthropology museums in the world. Among its 50,000 artefacts, many have been called into question over their link to Victorian Britain’s imperial conquests, as well as coming under criticism for the way they have been exhibited and labelled. The museum was originally designed to explain “the conservatism of savage and barbarous races”, using it to promote European ways in comparison. Its collection is grouped together by “type” rather than country and has previously come under fire for its exhibition of labels, such as “primitive dwellings”, “primitive medicines” and “modern savage” to describe the relics. Wayne Modest, an Honorary Research Associate at the museum has stated on this, “When working with ethnographic collections today, one is always aware of the shadows of colonial categories and the critiques of words (and images) long held by those we try to represent. Indeed, it is not just words that matter: the perspectives or the position from which one writes or displays also matters.” Augustus Pitt Rivers, who founded the museum in 1884, was himself strongly influenced by Darwinism, or rather the use of Darwinist theories to explain social Darwinism, taking concepts like the survival of the fittest and placing them in social structures to explain “the conservatism of savage and barbarous races”.

In 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum faced criticism over and subsequently removed its collection of shrunken heads, or tsantas, which went on display in the 1940’s. The shrunken heads were made by the Shuar and Achuar people from Ecuador and Peru and were deemed by the museum’s director, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven to reinforce racist stereotypes, as the museum’s audience research found that “visitors often understood the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome.’” As of yet, the tsantas have not been repatriated. Where they were once exhibited, a board remains in its place that poses questions of Western perception, writing of the “exoticising nature” of the previous display. The move came 15 years after a UK government guidance was published that stated, “careful thought should be put into the reasons for, and circumstances of, the display of human remains.”

The University’s museums house a number of looted artefacts within their collections that have come under controversy for cultural insensitivity. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge agreed to repatriate more than 200 Benin Bronze items in August 2022, after Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments sent a formal claim, including the return of 97 objects in the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museum collections. Oxford University’s Council said in a statement in June 2022 that it “is now submitting the case to the Charity Commission, recommending transfer of legal title to the objects to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.” The UK Charity Commission was expected to assess the claims this autumn, however, there has been no recent update on the fate of the objects. Should the objects be repatriated, this will likely mark the largest repatriation of Benin artefacts from the UK. The Oxford University news office told Cherwell, “The Charity Commission has subsequently requested additional information on the case which will be supplied before the end of the year and we hope it will issue its decision shortly thereafter. As one of several UK museums that hold significant materials taken from Benin in 1897, the Pitt Rivers has been involved in long-term research and engagement projects in partnership with Nigerian stakeholders and representatives from the Royal Court of the Benin Kingdom.  Since 2017, the Museum has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group and has played a leading role in discussions on the future care of the collections.”

A dig into Oxford University’s relationship with colonial artefacts and exhibitions comes at a time of a larger debate in the UK over repatriation. The British Museum currently hosts the Parthenon Marbles which Greece have campaigned for decades to be returned to Athens. George Osborne, the British Museum Chair, has recently rebuked calls for restitution, claiming “we believe in a museum of common humanity”.

The repatriation debate is one familiar to the University; in May 2022, the Oxford Union voted to repatriate contested artefacts. The proposition speaker, Stephen Fry, who has long advocated for the cause, spoke of the Parthenon Marbles which he described as being “sawn and hacked away from the frieze of that extraordinary building… These were looted and stolen and exported without licence and they need to go back.”

Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar has rebuked the legacy of the UK’s colonial roots. The University held a series of Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures in October, in which Biggar claimed that Britain is not a systemically racist country and that Britain’s racism is not rooted in its colonial past which it continues to celebrate. He branded this aspect of the decolonisation movement “false” and having “smuggled itself into university departments undercover of false ideas”.  The Oxford professor has also written an article for The Times called ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’.

Within the University, organisations exist to combat colonial material in an educational way. A co-curated exhibition that opened on the 16th of November at the Bodleian Library entitled These Things Matter displays various examples of colonial materials from the University’s own collection and puts them in a contemporary context with adjoining artworks. These Things Matter plays on a new way of exhibiting that frames and contextualises the colonial material. It takes, for example, a heavily redacted Bible made to teach a pro-slavery version of Christianity and displays it alongside a video called ‘And there was disquiet at God’s table’ by Nigerian artist Bunmi Ogunsiji. The video punctuated by echoes and rhyme, encounters the founder of the society responsible for the redacted Bible, Rev. Beilby Porteus. Raising questions to the Reverend, such as “Are you not here in my house because I was in yours?” and talking of the missionaries sent “into the land of night shining the torch of God’s good light”, the piece creates a discussion on the use of religion as colonial justification, as well as its effects on the construction of his neo-colonial African identity.

Uncomfortable Oxford, an academic-led organisation, also challenges the narratives the University’s museums exhibit and the debate of repatriation. From January 2023, the organisation will continue to lead their Ashmolean Tour which engages specifically on the question of restitution and authenticity in museums, taking for example the cast gallery of the museum in which all the statues are copies, raising the questions that challenge the argument made by Western museums that they cannot return the original artefacts to their communities. 

Calls to return a 16th century Indian Bronze currently held at the Ashmolean Museum were made in March 2020 by the Indian High Commission, and the museum is currently awaiting the final report from the Archaeological Survey of India, after which the claim will be submitted the to museum’s trustees and finally, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford will be the one to decide if the object will be returned under University’s Procedures for the Return of Cultural Objects.

Oxford University is in a process of revisiting its complex relationship with colonial history through its museums, bringing up questions of redressing and repairing. Effacing the colonial perspective through the changing of exhibition narratives, as well as calls to repatriate come amidst the “culture wars” that have long brandished the front pages of newspapers.

Image credit: Ana Lanzon

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