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Pitt Rivers Museum reopening reveals critical changes to displays

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Tsantas close up July 2020 - Photo Hugh Warwick

Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum reopened its doors to the public earlier this week, and visitors will now see changes to some of the museum’s more contentious displays. These changes are part of a comprehensive programme of work being led by the museum to deeply engage with its colonial legacy, one of the most pioneering approaches in decolonisation at a museum in the UK.   

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.  

Pitt Rivers External buidling within Museum of Natural History - Photo Ian Wallman

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 in acknowledging its past practices and the nature of its collecting, display and interpretation and the effects those 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? Pitt Rivers approached this holistically and strategically. Over three years, from 2017-2020, its director, 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.  

The interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum - Photo Ian Wallman

The review identified and prioritised displays that required urgent attention because of the derogatory language used in the historic case labels or because they played into 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 on display. 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. 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.”   

Original case with three tsanta July 2020 - Photo Hugh Warwick

A key outcome of the review was the removal of well-known human remains that have been on long-term display in the MuseumOver the summer, a team at the Museum have been carefully taking 120 Human Remains from open display including the well-known South American tsantsas (also known as the ‘shrunken heads’), Naga trophy heads and Egyptian mummy of a child. All items have now been moved into storage. The Museum still stewards over 2,800 human remains from different parts of the world, and is actively reaching out to descendant communities over the next years 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.” 

Original case featuring Egyptian objects 2020 - Photo Hugh Warwick

For reopening the Museum has 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 more deeper understanding of other cultures and therefore offer a very limited insight into complex historical processes and can reinforce racism and stereotypes.  

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.” 

Human remains put in container for storage July 2020 - Photo Hugh Warwick

Where the human remains were displayed, in a case called ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’, visitors will now find a display, curated by Van Broekhoven on the Museum’s human remain collections, its work toward 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 measuring skulls and bones, and how those are linked to racist ideas about superiority and inferiority.       


Laura Van Broekhoven said: “There will be those who will miss being intrigued by the tsantsa, but we also know 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.“

Pitt Rivers Museum

South Parks Road Oxford OX1 3PP

Tel: +44 (0)1865 613 000

Entry is free entry but pre-booking is required. For more information visit


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