How racist are shrunken heads?

In recent months there has been more talk about the repatriation of museum objects all around the world. Well, actually, it has kind of been talked over for 100 years now and some museums went into that direction, some haven’t yet (not always their fault).  

Honestly, I am kind of on two sides on that topic. I definitely know that how some of the objects were acquired is wrong (theft&looting!), but at the same time museum objects from certain cultures that are scattered all around the world give us, the audience, a great sneak peak into those cultures without the need to travel to the places the culture is from (saying that, who wouldn’t want to travel and see the objects in their authentic positions..ok, maybe not right at this moment, but you get what I am saying). 

So, to stress again, I am NOT ok with how some objects found their way to being displayed, but is it wrong to say that it is kind of cool that we can all admire them all around the world? I feel I am getting into some topics that should not be discussed so briefly, so I am going to stop here, just to be safe…..

So why am I saying all this? I just saw this article about Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (definitely worth the visit if you are ever around) changing their display. To be exact, they are taking away one of their most looked at items because of the supposed visitors’ ‘cultural appropriation’. They are moving the shrunken heads tsantsas out of view, because apparently people only connect them with how savage those cultures were instead of learning about that culture and why they were linked to these practices. 

I understand where they are coming from, but I thought this was the job of the museum to bust these things, to educate people in the right way. I guess these specific objects do need an extensive debate with South American people, as they are sacred to them and should (maybe) not even be displayed for white people (people not from their tribes) to ogle them. But then we come to the same discussion as we did before: how far can museums go to educate people about different cultures (in the right way)? 

Especially ethnographic museums have this role that they have to take very seriously (otherwise these racist and stereotypical thinking of the visitors comes out..). I am all for displaying items that show other cultures and their behaviours, because this might sometimes be the only way I can come in contact with them. If it is possible, the museums should collaborate with people from that culture to exhibit said items in the manner that truly represents them. And, of course, these items should be acquired legally and with a blessing from that culture.

Oh, what a nice world that would be, if this worked like that every time…

Either way, Pitt Rivers’ decision is to take the items away and discuss it with Shuar and Achuar representatives. Fair enough, that’s what we all want. Let’s see how it plays out. 

What are your thoughts on the subject? As I mentioned before, I just briefly touched upon it, this is definitely not my whole opinion and I have much more to say about it, but I feel it is enough for now to open the debate.

1. (downloaded 17th September 2020).
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4. personal archive

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