Pitt Rivers skulls

The Pitt Rivers Museum: Is Decolonization on the Way?

The Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884, is one of the most famous museums of anthropology, ethnography, and archaeology in the world. Once described as a “cultural cornucopia”, its gallery presents a range from religious objects to weapons, textiles, divinity items, and other beautiful extensions of human experience.[1] In 1987, John Reader’s article characterized Pitt Rivers as an “enchanting museum that sparkles with the cultural imagination and ingenuity of mankind”.[2] Recently, its ingenuity was associated with the fact that the objects on display are linked to a period of British History when Imperial expansion and colonization led to the exploitation and disrespect towards other cultures and communities. Unfortunately, the objects were often misrepresented in the Museum. Sometimes labeling the items in a racist, derogatory and eurocentric manner, Pitt Rivers’ curatorial approach led to a necessary controversy, which is, now, being actively addressed by the institution. Finally, since 2017, the Museum is in an ongoing effort to become a place that no longer perpetuates an unawareness towards the institutional violence of the past but, instead, seeks to find an ethical and integral approach that informs and educates. One that is more respectful, honest, and welcoming to everyone around the globe.

The Pitt Rivers Museum
Image Source: Pitt Rivers Museum – Press images for Et…ins Sept 2020

Historical Background: Who Was Pitt Rivers?

In 1827, Augustus Henry Lane Fox was born in the County of York. He was a general in the British Army, an ethnologist, and an archaeologist, who inherited the estate, an annual income, and the name “Pitt-Rivers” from his great uncle.[3] In 1882, Augustus Pitt-Rivers became the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments. Interested in fire weapons, he was a devoted collector of several varieties of weaponry, and, over the years, added other objects to his collection. He would acquire these objects in the places where he was on service or during holidays abroad. It is well-known today that the majority of these items came from dealers, auction houses, and fellow members of the Anthropological Institute.[4]
Finally, Pitt-Rivers decided to give his collection to the University of Oxford under the condition that it would constitute a museum for pedagogical purposes. In 1892, the Pitt Rivers Museum officially opened.[5]

So, What Is The Problem?

So, what is the problem? Why did this Museum raise such a controversy? At least, enough to make the Museum Board restructure its program? Firstly, the tendency in the west to represent indigenous works, objects, practices in ethnographic museums and not in art institutions, is considered disrespectful towards indigenous communities. It may imply that the native cultures represented are not a living reality and tradition, but an exotic entity to be contemplated, from a Eurocentric perspective, as part of a human experience that no longer exists.

Besides, many objects on display were acquired violently from people around the world, whose lives and resources were overwhelmingly exploited. Western colonizers felt entitled to collect these peoples’ objects and display and represent them later through their biased, Eurocentric lens. This was the Pitt Rivers Museum case, which, since 2017, acknowledges the often racist and derogatory labels employed in its exhibitions and is committed to finding a more understanding and considerate approach to their program.

Pitt RIvers Galleries
Image Source: Pitt Rivers Museum – Press images for Et…ins Sept 2020

The Movement Rhodes Must Fall Against Pitt Rivers Museum

On 9 March 2015, the famous movement Rhodes Must Fall began at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It led to the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a notorious 19th-century imperialist, and started a controversy in the city of Oxford because Oriel College refused to remove its statue of the same individual. The Rhodes Must Fall movement was not solely fighting for the removal of some statues. It was, essentially, a battle against “open institutional racism in university life, in South Africa and Britain” and an effort to end the decolonization of education.[6] The problem is not the statue itself, but the “ethos that gives space and even preeminence to such a figure, and hesitates to interrogate Rhode’s legacy”.[7]

This student-led movement did not leave Pitt Rivers Museum free of charge. This institution was attacked on Twitter by the movement page that posted the following: “The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford, (…) it houses thousands of artifacts stolen from colonized peoples throughout the world”.[8] According to the movement, the Pitt Rivers Museum was perpetuating a naive concept of colonization, making it seem a trivial reality, one fun to contemplate through glass boxes full of objects deriving from a dark and violent past.

Indeed, the movement’s tweet ended up being a good spur for the Pitt Rivers Museum, which decided, attentively, to initiate a complete review of its structure and program.

The Decolonization of a Museum

The decolonization of a Museum is “not simply the relocation of a statue or an object” but it can be defined as “a long-term process that seeks to recognize 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”.[9]
The Director of Pitt Rivers Museum, Laura Van Broekhoven, led a so-called Internal Review of Display and Programming during 2017-2020, based on an ethical perspective.[10] Together with internal staff, stakeholders, A-level students, refugees and migrants from Oxfordshire, and community members from around the world, Laura Van Broekhoven reviewed the structure of the Museum program.[11] A special focus was given to the displays represented in derogatory labels and embedded in the mental universe of colonization, depicting other cultures as primitive or savage. Furthermore, they are reviewing and rethinking all objects of the Pitt Rivers Museum, from the looted items, acquired from other cultures during war and western power imposition, as well as more delicate elements such as human remains and sacred indigenous objects, such as the Shuar tsantsa or ‘the shrunken heads’, one of the most argumentative cases in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s review.

The Pitt Rivers Museum claims to have a long history of positive dialogue with the indigenous communities represented in its gallery, and this review intended to intensify this dialogue.[12] The Museum is making sure indigenous communities are involved in the process of representation of their objects and materials and is opened to the possibility of repatriation if the locals request so.

Pitt Rivers Museum: A skull being removed.
Image source: Pitt Rivers Museum – Press images for Et…ins Sept 2020

The Case of the ‘Shrunken Heads’

The ‘shrunken heads’, made by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America, are constituted by either humans, sloths, or monkeys’ heads.[13] These items were, famously, collected by westerners. One head was usually exchanged for one gun, which would incite violence and perpetuate war. Their meaning was extremely powerful. They were “taken to capture one of the multiple souls of the Shuar and Achuar people and thus seen to provide strength”.[14]

The ‘shrunken heads’ have been on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum since the 1940s. Recently, they were, finally, removed. Indigenous leaders have stood against the exhibit of their ancestor’s remains for a long time. It is a vulnerable topic since these remains expose their predecessors’ deaths, which should not be considered a curiosity in the West. It is valuable and sacred.
The Pitt Rivers Museum acknowledged the offensive character of the displays and has been contacting the indigenous communities to whom these remains belong and actively trying to find the most appropriate way of dealing with the situation.

Sometimes the solution is repatriation (as happened in 2017 with the ten ancestral remains returned to Aoa Tearoa, and the Maori and Moriori’s remains, which were also returned home).[15] Other times, the redesigning of the materials’ representation in a way that is in line with these cultures’ values and practices is consensually enough.

Anyway, it is a significant initiative of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and anyone visiting the place today can acknowledge a meaningful shift in the Museum’s attitude.

the 'Shrunken heads'
Image Source: Pitt Rivers Museum – Press images for Et…ins Sept 2020

My Visit to Pitt Rivers Museum

My visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum a few days ago had two things worth noticing and sharing. I was already aware of the controversy around the place, and my mind was avidly looking for traces of the famous review that shifted the Museum’s mindset. Indeed, it is inevitable to make an effort to introduce the visitors to the reality they are being exposed to.

Pitt Rivers Museum informs on ‘Coloniality’:

An introductory text, right at the beginning of the visit, describes the Museum as a “footprint of colonialism” and invites its visitors to acknowledge it as a place of cultural representation which should be explored with certain ideas in mind, such as the following: who is being seen, who has the power to see, who is being represented, who represents. This informed power dynamics displayed right at the start of the visit is an effective way of raising awareness of what cannot be left unnoticed. Furthermore, the Museum’s descriptions go even further by asserting that “the invisible structures of colonialism persist today (…) known as coloniality (…) that divides the world into «the West and the rest» and assigns racial, intellectual, and cultural superiority to the west”. Coloniality, an invisible force, sets hierarchies, controls knowledge, imposes white culture, and uses Eurocentric language that oppresses and obscures the reality behind the objects exhibited.

Pitt Rivers Museum informs on the Western Imposition of Gender Binary:

Another thing worth mentioning is the introductory text to the Hawaiian feather cloak exhibited in the museum. The text describes colonialism as a process that “seeks to overwrite existing cultural systems in the belief that colonial cultures are superior”, which leads to misrepresentation of other traditions’ objects and concepts. The Hawaiian cloak, for instance, brings about the imposition of gender binary by the colonial forces that imposed the categories of men and women, and, ultimately, the superiority of the former.

In 1842, this beautiful object, a feather cloak or ‘ahu ‘ula (a symbol of political authority and spiritual power in Hawaii), was presented to Sir George Simpson, a governor of the Hudson Bay Company, by the Hawaiian Chiefess Kekāuluohi.[16] As the research fellow at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Dr. Ashley Coutu, asserts “Kekāuluohi was the Kuhina Nui, or, premier, of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, and was second in power after King Kamehameha III. She gave the cloak to Simpson to present to his wife Frances Ramsay Simpson, which raises questions of gender and power in this transitional time in Hawaii”.[17]

The introductory text concludes and informs the following: “In Hawaii, colonialism distorted the system of balance between women and men by dictating the subjugation of women in social, political, and economic realms, resulting in the restructuring of the status of Hawaiian women”.  

The Hawaiian feather cloak.
Image Source: Wikiwand

Decolonization in museums and its significance in cultural anthropology

The writer Elisa Shoenberger wrote an article, in MuseumNext, about what it means to decolonize a museum.[16] After reading it, one gets the feeling that there is no precise definition, and a consensus about its meaning is yet to arrive. Some will describe it as a process that leads institutions to expand their horizons and give equal voices to cultural groups underrepresented in history throughout the years. This can be achieved by different means, and it is still uncertain which path leads to the actual goal: the annihilation of institutions’ Eurocentric views, and the delegation of authority to those native communities that know better how to represent and contextualize their objects and practices.

But how can this be achieved?

Some institutions have been inviting native people to present their work and help to contextualize their cultural objects better. Others are developing new plans to restructure their collection and examine it through a more holistic approach. Some work alongside indigenous people to evaluate the treatment of their cultural objects, as the example of the Pitt Rivers Museum. And, in many cases, the repatriation of items is carried forward.

The activist Shaheen Kasmani believes that it is not sufficient to invite indigenous people and other underrepresented people to help the institution improve its ethics and program. According to Kasmani, decolonizing a museum is about radically challenging white supremacy and the Eurocentric perspective of human history.[17] It is about disrupting the system that perpetuates the meta-narrative of the white man as the main actor of humanity.[18] If the decolonization process does not have this outcome in mind, then all these efforts and transformations taking place in cultural institutions will merely lead to a new form of colonialism.[19]

But how to know which way we are heading? Kasmani draws attention to the decision-making authority. Who decides how the stories are told? Who decides how cultural objects are exhibited? Who has the power over the stories? The ones who lived those stories? How can decision-making be better delegated? Answering these questions may tell us whether the problem of coloniality is being efficiently addressed or not. Indeed, it is a gradual process, and increased awareness is being raised all around the world. But is it enough? Could it be better?  Hopefully, further discussion and dialogue will guide decolonization in cultural institutions to an even more complete and wholesome end.

[1] John Reader, “Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford offers a cultural cornucopia,” Smithsonian, vol. 18, July 1987, p. 108.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Pitt Rivers Museum: History of the Museum,” Pitt Rivers Museum, accessed June 28, 2021, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/history-museum.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The long read: The real meaning of Rhodes Must Fall,” The Guardian, accessed June 25, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/the-real-meaning-of-rhodes-must-fall.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Twitter: Rhodes Must Fall Oxford,” Twitter, accessed June 25, 2021, https://twitter.com/RMF_Oxford.

[9] “Pitt Rivers Museum: Critical changes to displays as part of the decolonisation process,” accessed June 24, 2021, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/critical-changes.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ashley Coutu, “Bird-feather cloaks as repositories of ecological and gendered knowledge,” Research Center for Material Culture, https://www.materialculture.nl/en/research/publications/bird-feather-cloaks-repositories-ecological-and-gendered-knowledge.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Elisa Shoenberger, “What does it mean to decolonize a museum?,” Museum Next, December 11, 2019, https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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