Wanted: Museum curator to return human remains that came to Britain ‘under coercion’

·3-min read
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds nearly 3,000 human specimens from child mummies to shrunken heads - Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds nearly 3,000 human specimens from child mummies to shrunken heads - Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo

A museum in Oxford is hiring a curator to return human remains as part of its decolonisation pledge, but must first work out where they will be returned to.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, which holds nearly 3,000 human specimens from child mummies to shrunken heads, said in a job advert that many of its items were “acquired in ways that are unacceptable today” and is seeking a curator to “work towards their return”.

However, the incoming expert at the museum pledging to repatriate human remains will first have to work out where they should be repatriated to, and inform unknowing communities that their remains have been taken in the first place.

Marina de Alarcon, the head of collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, told The Telegraph: “There are some human remains where the provenance information simply says ‘Africa’. Relatively little provenance work has been done. The level of information we have really varies. Once we know the communities of origin, we will look to reach out to them.

“We will have to reach out to communities, who in many cases will be hearing about remains being taken for the first time. That can cause huge distress.”

Ms de Alarcon does not believe this approach invites “trouble” by creating new claims for repatriation, and the museum has previously outlined its plan to address how it acquired items during the pomp of Britain’s empire through “military force or coercion”.

A trophy skull from Mundurucu indians, a head-hunting tribe of Brazil, on display at the museum - UrbanImages/Alamy Stock Photo
A trophy skull from Mundurucu indians, a head-hunting tribe of Brazil, on display at the museum - UrbanImages/Alamy Stock Photo

The curator said: “We can probably assume that none of these remains were willingly given. I have never come across any records of someone saying ‘Here, please take this’ and handing over their family members’ remains.”

In a bid to redress this, the new £31,000-a-year curator will first try and identify where items have come from, without invasive testing, then aim to contact communities descended from those who may have been coerced into giving up human remains historically.

These communities will then be consulted on the future of relevant objects, with curators aiming to let them decide whether they should be redisplayed, stored or removed from the collection and repatriated.

Repatriation may not stop there, with Ms de Alarcon stating: “It’s a lot of work. But if we get to the stage when we are finished with human remains, we can move on to things that were looted.”

The museum, founded in 1884 at the University of Oxford to house Augustus Pitt Rivers’ anthropological collection, holds about 2,800 specimens gathered from six continents.

In 2020, human remains were removed from this display at the museum - Pitt Rivers Museum
In 2020, human remains were removed from this display at the museum - Pitt Rivers Museum

The collection spans trophy heads from the Naga people in India, Shuar and Achuar shrunken heads from Ecuador, skulls from Canada, scalps from the US and an entire female skeleton from Australia.

Information on the origins of items varies in detail, with some specimens only bone fragments or everyday objects made with samples of human hair.

The newly announced role “primarily focussed on collections provenance work regarding human remains” will entail establishing where poorly documented items come from, but also difficult discussions with aggrieved descendants.

Ms de Alarcon said: “I think I’d be naive work that didn’t involve emotional labour on the part of people doing the work here. It’s a very exciting role, but could be deeply traumatic.”

The museum returned more than 20 human remains since 2004, including Maori remains which were given to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 2017.

In 2020, human remains were removed from display, with curators fearing they were open to a “racist” misinterpretation of their culture of origin, with concerns some would be seen as “savage”.

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