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The shrunken heads at Pitt Rivers museum (Oxford)

(37 Posts)
boheminan Wed 16-Sep-20 13:18:33

The shrunken heads, plus other remains including an Egyptian mummy have been removed from Pitt Rivers as part of a decolonization process.

To me this feels uncomfortably a case of ancient history being eradicated - or re written.

I'd be interested to hear other GN'rs views on this.

Illte Wed 16-Sep-20 13:25:30

I've always thought it was distasteful to have human remains on display for the public to gawk at.

So I'm happy they've gone.

lemongrove Wed 16-Sep-20 13:29:08

Really?! our children were fascinated by them, our DGC too.
They were the things they headed for first, when we entered the museum.
All those glass cases full of things and cabinet drawers to open and gape in wonder at.
I think it’s the done thing now to eradicate anything that may upset sensibilities in case of accusations of something or

felice Wed 16-Sep-20 13:45:33

Surely these are part of the culture in the Countries they came from, I can understand them being returned to their place of origin if requested but why should children be deprived of knowledge.
The Africa Museum here had a five year re-vamp and the new exhibitions are excellent, not a white wash in any way just educational and very interesting.
None of my sub-Saharan African friends have been offended by it in fact some have said it is often the only real way their children can experience their parents and Grandparents culture.

Illte Wed 16-Sep-20 13:48:40

I know lemongrove. Mine always made for Barnack Man first, in all his peaty splendour.

Gruesome little beasts, aren't they😬

I still dont like it though.

lemongrove Wed 16-Sep-20 13:49:28


SueDonim Wed 16-Sep-20 14:16:37

I’ve never liked seeing human remains of any sort in museums. I’m certainly fascinated by them eg when the remains of Richard the Third were discovered I was very interested to see the photos but I don’t know that I need to see them.

Again, I’ve not seen it myself but I’ve always felt sad at Joseph Merrick aka Elephant Man having his skeleton on display. Maybe he agreed to it, I don’t know, but it seems disrespectful.

Septimia Wed 16-Sep-20 15:01:17

People can be too precious about these things, although I agree that there are circumstances in which the displays are far from tasteful. In the past, at least, there were cultures which kept the bodies of their ancestors in their homes, almost as a continuation of the family. They obviously had no problem with seeing the bodies and, in fact, saw it as a way of showing respect for their ancestors.

My biggest complaint is the whitewashing of history when it would be much better to provide information about ALL aspects of a subject, good and bad. It's called education.

suziewoozie Wed 16-Sep-20 15:09:41

It’s the right thing to do - these were plundered goods, no consent. When you think of the importance we attach to funerals, death etc and associated concepts of respect, dignity, memory, love. As for eradicating history, what utter tosh - the thing to do is put information in their place explaining what was there, how they were plundered and why they have been returned.

suziewoozie Wed 16-Sep-20 15:16:14

Earlier this year, I visited some war graves in Belgium. The stark beauty and order of these cemeteries contrasts with the disorder and suffering the represent. I’m always particularly moved when I see a German grave - still tended and cared for. Perhaps their bodies or bits of them should have been brought back to the UK and put on display in the Imperial War Museum so our children could learn about their history.

Septimia Wed 16-Sep-20 15:25:53

I have no problem with returning artefacts that were taken without permission as long as they are going to be cared for properly. Unfortunately, sometimes, they are later destroyed in revolutionary or other activities, as has happened to important archaeological/historical/cultural sites in parts of the Middle East or Australia (the ancient cave sacred to the Aborigine people). Some of the artefacts wouldn't have survived if they hadn't been 'plundered'.

It is a contentious issue but I think each case has to be considered individually. As an archaeologist, I might have a different view from many folk.

suziewoozie, we might not agree entirely, but your word 'information' is the critical one - it's information that is needed and I certainly agree with you on that.

Furret Wed 16-Sep-20 15:27:14

Good thing too. When I visited with my grandson he asked 'was that once a real person?'

Septimia Wed 16-Sep-20 15:31:35

Having said what I did about archaeology - I've always felt that any human remains discovered during excavations should be recorded and studied in detail .... and then re-buried with dignity.

suziewoozie Wed 16-Sep-20 15:35:35

I agree Septima about how sad it is when things are destroyed by acts of war, revolution, carelessness, greed but I would put human remains in a quite separate category.

suziewoozie Wed 16-Sep-20 15:38:38

But I don’t think human remains are ever artefacts, no matter how old.

Septimia Wed 16-Sep-20 15:50:09

Agreed. Artefacts are inanimate.

suziewoozie Wed 16-Sep-20 15:53:51

I just find it utterly unacceptable that anyone thinks part of a human should be on display in these ways.

Callistemon Wed 16-Sep-20 16:09:09


Having said what I did about archaeology - I've always felt that any human remains discovered during excavations should be recorded and studied in detail .... and then re-buried with dignity.

I always think that too - they may have been buried thousands of years ago but were buried with due reverence and often with their possessions with them. We have enough skill today to make replicas if we wish and return the originals to their burial place.

NotTooOld Wed 16-Sep-20 16:15:32

As a child I was fascinated by the mummies in the British Museum so I would be sad if they were no longer available for today's children to look at.

SueDonim Wed 16-Sep-20 16:20:15

Felice my visit to the Africa Museum in the early years of this millennium shocked me to the core. I found it hard to believe that such a museum was allowed to exist in that form in close proximity to the home of the EU parliament. It was horrific. sad

The friend who took me said that even the museum I saw had been toned down from how it was when she first visited after moving to the area.

Oopsminty Wed 16-Sep-20 16:21:45

Anyone been to the Catacombs of Paris?

Millions of skulls/bones. Dating back centuries

Filled with ancient graffiti as well.

felice Thu 17-Sep-20 07:38:36

Suedomin, as I said in my post, the Museum has had a 5 year renovation, re-opening just last year.
There are some of the old bronzes on display in a separate area which can be visited if you wish but the rest of the exhibits are sensitively displays, and whilst still fulfilling the ethos of the Museum, to explain African culture and diversity.
When you visited Tervuren did you go to the Churchyard to see the graves of the people who were taken from the Congo to be put on display in the park.
The conditions they lived in were horrendous, Belgium has a terrible reputation for the way it treated Congolese people.

LullyDully Thu 17-Sep-20 07:53:05

When I visited the wonderful Mary Rose museum a few years ago, they said that they had many bodies in store. They have of course reconstructed some of the skulls to reveal the features , which is fascinating. I felt maybe the rest of the skeletons need burial at Spithead, but maybe they are keeping them for research.

Still men who died in horrific circumstances.

BlueBelle Thu 17-Sep-20 08:11:32

Lemongrove so you think it’s acceptable because your children enjoyed seeing gruesome body parts
Surely it’s never right to use these as entertainment it’s about respect and care, not about being called iver sensitive
Of course they need to go back to the country of origin we cant make the excuse of looking after them ‘in case‘ they get destroyed in their own country
They shouldn’t be destroyed but they shouldn’t be on show there for kids to go ‘yuk’ over
I feel the same about John Merrick and other people with rare disabilities, think if it was your family member

fatgran57 Thu 17-Sep-20 08:42:54

I remember when several years ago we were in Cairo at the museum.

In a side room kept quite dark, was the mummy of Ramesse II, a great king of Egypt.

I clearly recall how uncomfortable I felt looking upon the face of the pharaoh.It seemed so wrong that I was doing this, I had no right to be able to view his body - he was not a sideshow exhibit.

Then to my horror a group of young people came in and started laughing and making fun of the body of the pharaoh.

This was wrong and I really think that these remains should not be on display.
It is disrespectful at the very least.