Following the reopening of the Museum in September 2020, visitors saw changes to some of the Museum’s more contentious displays. These changes are part of a comprehensive programme of work we are doing to deeply engage with the Museum's colonial legacy. Overall, this is one of the most pioneering approaches to decolonisation at a museum in the UK.
The Pitt Rivers is one of the leading and best-known museums of anthropology, ethnography and archaeology in the world and its collection of more than 500,000 items, acquired over more than 130 years, reflects an incredible breadth of culture. Objects range from musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery and tools, and cover all periods of human existence.
However, the history of the Museum and many of its objects is closely tied to British Imperial expansion and the colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from the world over. The processes of colonial collecting were often violent and inequitable towards those peoples being colonised. This difficult history has led the Museum to engage more closely with its past practices and the nature of its collections, display and interpretation and the effects these continue to have today. While such questions are being posed in museums across the sector, the nature of Pitt Rivers’ history, collections and displays (its historic labels including racist and derogatory language, commonly used at the time) makes these questions particularly pressing and especially challenging.
How does a large historic museum, with such a legacy of colonialism, begin to address these issues? We have approached this holistically and strategically. Over three years, from 2017-2020, its director, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, has led a comprehensive and pioneering Internal Review of Displays and Programming from an Ethical Perspective involving both internal staff and external stakeholders, in particular community delegates from different parts of the world but also A-level students and people living in Oxfordshire as refugees or forced migrants.
This review has provided a framework for considering these issues and informed a plan for decolonisation, a process described by the Museums Association as “not simply the relocation of a statue or an object but a long-term process that seeks to recognise the integral role of empire in British museums – from their creation to the present day – that requires a reappraisal of our institutions and their history and an effort to address colonial structures and approaches to all areas of museum work.” We have broadened this approach to include work that embraces hope, reconciliation and redress and focuses on co-curatorial approaches to bring new voices into the Museum and ensure public engagement is led by socially engaged work with communities.
Our review identified and prioritised displays that required urgent attention because of the derogatory language used in the historic case labels or because they reinforced stereotypical thinking about cultures across the globe that, as part of the colonial project, were seen as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. Some cases were chosen for review as they include looted objects, or featured human remains. Others included objects considered sacred or secret by Indigenous Peoples, such as the Shuar tsantsa (shrunken heads).
Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, explains: “With the Museum’s complicated colonial history, it was important for us to lead this Ethical Review and to ensure we did not shy away from difficult conversations. The implementation of the review is part of the Museum’s strategic plan to bring its public facing-spaces more in line with its contemporary ethos of actively working with communities and respecting different ways of being as we become a welcoming space for all. Given the scope of what is required, the implementation of changes will be part of a long-term programme of curatorial work that will engage many stakeholders and stretch out over years, probably decades to come. But given its unique position, gradual change has always been part of curating the Pitt Rivers Museum.”
A key outcome of the review was the removal of well-known human remains that have often been on display for many years. Over the summer of 2020, a team at the Museum carefully removed 120 human remains from open display, including the well-known South American tsantsa (shrunken heads), Naga trophy heads from NE India and the mummy of an Egyptian child. All items have now been moved into storage. The Museum still cares for over 2800 human remains from different parts of the world, and is actively reaching out to descendant communities to find the most appropriate way to care for these complex items.
Laura Van Broekhoven says: “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 removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics.”
For reopening, we have installed new interpretation on site offering visitors insight into the way the Museum formed its collections. Displays explain how some of the historic labels have obscured the deeper understanding of other cultures and therefore offer a very limited insight into complex historical processes and can reinforce racism and stereotypes. New labels and corresponding films and podcasts offer new readings, bringing to life the displays with more engaging, moving and multi-faceted stories that help visitors engage more deeply with stories through the voices of artists, Indigenous leaders and local stakeholders from Australia, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Oxford.
Research Associate Marenka Thompson-Odlum, who curated several of the new displays says: “A lot of people might think about the removal of certain objects or the idea of restitution as a loss, but what we are trying to show is that we aren’t losing anything but creating space for more expansive stories. That is at the heart of decolonisation. We are allowing new avenues of story-telling and ways of being to be highlighted.”
Where the human remains were displayed, in a case called ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’, visitors will now find information on the Museum’s human remain collections, our work towards restitution of the remains and an explanation of why the objects were taken off display including how they formed part of problematic past academic practices of physical anthropology and race science, and how those are linked to racist ideas about superiority and inferiority.
The Museum is committed to continuing this critical work informed by its review. As part of its stewardship of human remains, it is working with communities on restitution issues – a process that often involves collaborative engagement over a long period and may lead to remains being returned, cared for differently, or redisplayed. It is also engaging in proactive work regarding the composition of its collections, including objects taken through military violence or otherwise under duress. In 2019 the Museum was shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year, praised for ‘its curatorial energy and innovative programming inviting new responses that spark curiosity’ and calling its ‘bold approach to addressing the contentious histories of its collections sector-leading.’
Our commitment to this work is supported within Oxford University where the Museum sits as a department. The Museum has worked closely with the University on its current Procedures for Claims for the Return of Cultural Objects from Oxford University Museums and Libraries, published in July 2020.
Laura Van Broekhoven: “There will be those who will miss being intrigued by the tsantsa, but we also know that most of our visitors have several favourite objects. With over 50,000 objects on display, we know our visitors will continue to find things that bring joy, inspire creativity and curiosity as there is no museum better suited to wander and wonder than the Pitt Rivers Museum.“