Of all the objects scooped up by the Victorians on their expeditions around the world, few were as gruesomely fascinating to friends and family back home as shrunken heads collected in the deep jungles of South America.
Ten such shrunken heads, or tsantsas, made their way into the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, where they are included in a display called "Treatment of Dead Enemies." Collected between 1871 and 1936 from the Upper Amazon region between Peru and Ecuador, they were made by the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna peoples.
According to a fact sheet published by the museum, the taking of heads from enemies has been "a socially approved form of violence with deep religious and cultural meanings. It was not seen simply as murder, but as a way of maintaining social and cosmological order. It has always been accompanied by elaborate rituals surrounding the killing of the victim and the display of the head itself."
The fact sheet further explains: "British explorers collected shrunken heads because they saw them as exotic curiosities . . . There was such demand for shrunken heads by museums and private collectors that some were made for sale from the heads of people who had died of natural causes."
One of the heads, acquired sometime before 1874 by General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), was part of the museum's founding collection. Pitt Rivers, shown here, is sometimes called the "father of scientific archaeology" because of his rigorous collection and cataloguing methods. Here's how the head was originally described:
"Head of a captured chief artificially shrunk by the Xebaroe Indians of South America. After the head has been boiled for some time with an infusion of herbs the skull and bones are removed through the neck, the hair and features being preserved. Heated stones are then put into the hollow and as they cool are constantly replaced by others; by this means the head is reduced to its present size; it is then suspended in the hut and solemnly abused by the owner; after which the mouth is sewn up to prevent the chance of a reply; the abuse is repeated at feasts and on special occasions."
Of course the display attracts thousands of people each year, riveting young and old alike, and is one of the museum's most popular attractions.
However, a curator at the museum has recently raised questions about the appropriateness of the display. Laura Peers told The Oxford Times she felt "uncomfortable" that the heads were on exhibit. "I personally would like to know more about what the communities in Ecuador and Peru feel about it," she said. She is currently reviewing visitors' responses to the display to determine the museum's next steps. The heads could be removed from public view or even returned to South America.
Her remarks have created a small uproar in Oxford, with some saying that political correctness has run amok.
"The heads are popular and educational," said Oxford resident Sara Patel. "I remember them as a kid and have a great fondness for the museum. No one is asking for them to be taken off display except this curator who clearly thinks she knows better than the public!"
The museum's director is taking a more measured view. "The Pitt Rivers tries to tread a careful line between acknowledging the very considerable public interest in these historical displays on the one hand, and shifting ethical sensitivities on the other," said Michael O'Hanlon.
A perspective that seems to be missing in the discussion is this: the exhibit tells us as much about the culture of the collectors as it does about the culture of those "collected" . . . and for that reason alone is a valuable teaching tool. Why not incorporate the current conversation over "shifting ethical sensitivities" into the display? Explain what the Victorians thought about this issue, and why, and then discuss how and why feelings have changed since their era.