© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The ghosts of colonialism at the Pitt Rivers Museum

As the museum changes displays to acknowledge its colonial heritage, should something more fundamental be done with the UK’s historic collections?
October 6, 2022

Somewhere behind the scenes at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Marenka Thompson-Odlum is rummaging through a medium-sized plastic box. The box contains labels from display cases that have recently been removed; this is where they come to die.

Plucking out a large sign reading “PRIMITIVE DWELLINGS”, Thompson-Odlum weighs it thoughtfully in her hand. “I should think of something better to do with them, but I can’t really figure out what,” she says. Jumbled alongside is another inscribed “PRIMITIVE MEDICINES”. Finally, she pulls out the one she’d been searching for: “MODERN SAVAGE”. She grimaces. “That was up more recently than you’d think,” she says.

For the past three years, this has been Thompson-Odlum’s life. As a research assistant and “change curator” at the Pitt Rivers, now 34, she has the job of sifting through fragments of the museum’s past, trying to make them more palatable to the present. Born in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, she was completing a PhD at Glasgow University on the city’s links with the slave trade when she came to Oxford to run the Labelling Matters project, which attempts to rectify racist or otherwise problematic language used in museum displays. To call the task Herculean undersells it. The Pitt Rivers, one of the largest anthropology museums in the world, contains over half a million objects; some 50,000 are on display, many with multiple labels. 

How many labels has she worked on so far? “Not enough,” replies Thompson-Odlum, who is quick to laugh but has a purposeful air. She gestures to the galleries beyond. “The project was meant to take a year. But then look at this place.”

These are strange times for museums and heritage institutions. First came the protests over the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, which in the UK touched off conflagrations about the long-dead past. The statue of slaver Edward Colston was dumped in Bristol harbour before being fished out and redisplayed (where else?) in one of the city’s museums. A few months later, the National Trust published a root-and-branch review of its connections to slavery, which prompted a newspaper pile-on about “wokeism”. The Geffrye Museum in east London renamed itself the Museum of the Home—Robert Geffrye invested in the slave trade—and the British Museum relegated a bust of its physician founder Hans Sloane to a display case pointing out that he, too, owned slaves. This debate around colonial legacies is part of a wider focus on “culture wars” that now fills the news and opinion pages (one study found approximately 1,500 mentions of the phrase in 2021 alone, up from 21 in 2015).

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Close-up of a carved wooden Benin head on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Under Boris Johnson, the government enthusiastically jumped into battle, insisting that museums should “retain and explain” rather than take objects off display, and stuffing museum boards with people who agree. But it appears to be losing the war. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration tasked a steering group with making representations of empire and slavery in the country’s museums “more accurate”, while the Welsh government has launched similar projects reappraising national collections. Following a landmark report published in France in 2018, which called for African artefacts in French museums to be permanently repatriated, the outcry over objects such as the Maqdala treasures (seized from Ethiopia by the British Army in 1868) and the Benin bronzes (looted from Nigeria by British soldiers in 1897) has intensified. 

The Pitt Rivers’s collections were originally designed to explain “the conservatism of savage and barbarous races”

Museums with colonial or otherwise dubious pasts—which is to say, most museums in western nations—are under pressure to “decolonise”. When surveyed, nearly 60 per cent of British people agree that the Parthenon Marbles belong in Athens, not Bloomsbury.

As I walk the cool, hushed floors of the Pitt Rivers with Thompson-Odlum, it is hard to imagine the place as a battleground. The museum’s fabulous anthropological collections are crowded into dark Victorian display cases that make it resemble an enchanted curiosity shop (it has made cameo appearances in the BBC TV adaptation of His Dark Materials as well as Inspector Morse).

Opened in 1884, the museum differed from its contemporaries by arranging artefacts by type rather than by geographical region, with Hindu figurines from India rubbing shoulders with Chinese Buddhist statuary; Ugandan “dancing rattles for the thighs” next to bulbous gourds from Arizona and a “black slug impaled on a thorn” found in Oxfordshire, apparently a cure for warts. 

Yet there’s no escaping that the Pitt Rivers is crammed with artefacts that would not be here were it not for Victorian Britain’s imperial conquests. Indeed, the collection, now under the care of the University of Oxford, was used to train aspiring colonial administrators in the ways of the peoples they would one day rule. “Can a museum like this actually be decolonised?” Thompson-Odlum asks, before answering her own question: “Probably not.” It isn’t just a matter of swapping out a few labels, she adds. “But you have to start somewhere. You have to find a way to frame it.”

When the museum reopened after lockdown in 2020, the first visitors back were discombobulated to discover that some of the museum’s most prized exhibits, tsantsas created by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador—better known as the “shrunken heads”—had been taken off display. Their sealed-off cases are now covered with text explaining the museum’s responsibilities to indigenous communities. 

There was, of course, outrage about the decision: an op-ed in the Oxford Mail called it “dull and dangerous.” But others pointed out that change had been a long time coming. As long ago as 2005, government guidance cautioned that human remains should be kept on display only in exceptional circumstances and where there is no alternative. It is an argument exceedingly hard to make for 10 “human heads” of dubious provenance, several of which turned out to be the heads of monkeys and sloths. 

Museums elsewhere have long since banished tsantsas to their storerooms. But, of course, one reason that half a million of us come to the Pitt Rivers each year—as Philip Pullman’s heroine Lyra did—is to revel in things that we know we perhaps shouldn’t see.

Many of the recent changes at the Pitt Rivers have been driven by one person: the museum’s director, Laura Van Broekhoven, 50, who took over in 2016. Born in Belgium and trained in the Netherlands, she came to Oxford from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, whose ethnographic collections are equally impressive and equally problematic. 

As an archaeologist and anthropologist, Van Broekhoven is an expert on central America: her early research focused on Nicaragua and how people there had resisted Spanish rule. But as her career developed, it became clear to her that western ethnographic institutions needed to mount a form of resistance—against themselves. In the Netherlands, she presented papers on opening channels of communication with indigenous communities whose objects had ended up in museums. Since coming to Oxford, she has been vocal about the need for museums like hers to redress some of the wrongs of the past.

As we talk in her airy office, she is at pains to point out that the uproar over the tsantsas was not as extreme as all that: despite some hostile press, the museum’s own research found that more than 90 per cent of the coverage had been neutral or positive. Visitors, though, were another story. “I got something like 60 letters. People were very angry, demanding my resignation, things like that. So that felt like, ‘woah’.” 

Swift-talking and direct, Van Broekhoven insists there is no going back; long before she arrived, many of her staff had been exploring these questions. But museums are conservative and slow-moving institutions. “When I was appointed as director, a lot of people said to me, ‘Don’t change a thing’.” She smiles. “But it’s one of those places that really needed change.” 

You don’t need to do much digging to see why. The museum’s founder, Augustus Lane Fox, born in 1827 into a wealthy Yorkshire landowning family, was a career soldier who briefly fought in the Crimean War and had a lifelong obsession with firearms (it’s no accident that the collection is so rich in lethal objects). In the 1850s he became interested in archaeology; after unexpectedly inheriting the vast Rivers estate in Dorset from his great uncle—the estate also granted him the right to use the Pitt Rivers family name—he decided to expand this into a collection that could contribute to the new discipline of anthropology.

Yet, as the museum’s website delicately observes, “Pitt Rivers himself did very little field collecting.” Instead, he employed his newfound wealth to hoover up thousands of objects from dealers, auction houses and anthropologists, who were eager to supply the late-Victorian mania for artefacts from across the globe. 

What marked Pitt Rivers out was his fascination for “the commoner class of objects which have been brought to this country”, particularly where they had comparable forms or responded to similar needs. This became the basis of his “typological” classification system. His founding gift, some 26,000 artefacts, was first deposited at the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A), before the main collection came to Oxford in 1884. Opened in purpose-built headquarters, it became one of the first anthropological museums in the UK.

Although historians debate what Pitt Rivers’s intentions were, there’s no mistaking his mindset. He was heavily influenced by cutting-edge Darwinian theory, but with a racist slant: these collections were designed to explain, he told the journal Nature in 1880, “the conservatism of savage and barbarous races and the pertinacity with which they retain their ancient types of art.” In other words, in order to understand how far white Europeans had evolved, they needed to see what less “advanced” people were making.

According to Miles Greenwood, the curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire at Glasgow Museums, Pitt Rivers was hardly alone: museums and colonialism are inextricable. “It’s not a coincidence,” he tells me. “They’re tied together in the very fabric of museums.”

As museums became more specialised and “scientific” through the 18th and 19th centuries, early modern cabinets of curiosity—with trophies from the Americas, south Asia, Indonesia and Polynesia often in pride of place—morphed into separate ethnographic collections, which were then absorbed into the ethnographic museums that began to pop up in Europe in the late 19th century. Objects from so-called “primitive” societies were especially prized.

Very often people were too. In 1897, as Pitt Rivers was fussing over the precise terms on which he would leave his collection to Oxford, Belgium’s King Leopold II held an international exposition to drum up support for his country’s exploitation of the Congo. Two hundred and sixty-seven Congolese men, women and children were brought to three specially constructed villages (“River”, “Forest”, “Civilised”) and exhibited for three months; seven died. Over a million Belgians visited. Profits and artefacts from the installation, itself the product of perhaps the bloodiest and most barbaric regime in colonial history, were ploughed into a permanent institution on the same site. It became—of course—an ethnographic museum. 

A “human zoo” in Belgium in 1897 © HP.1946.1058.1-32, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo A. Gautier, 1897, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford A “human zoo” in Belgium in 1897 © HP.1946.1058.1-32, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo A. Gautier, 1897, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

A “human zoo” in Belgium in 1897 © HP.1946.1058.1-32, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo A. Gautier, 1897, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Instead of drawing a veil over histories like this, Van Broekhoven says, it is important to face them head-on: “It’s about unlocking the stories that are held within these collections.” Rather than moving to a fresh space, or re-curating its displays—as ethnographic museums like Paris’s Quai Branly Museum and Berlin’s recently opened Humboldt Forum have done—the Pitt Rivers has tried to chart a more complex course, explaining the origins of its collections, without unreflectively re-enacting the offences of the past. The effect will be to transform the museum itself into a kind of historical artefact.

“It’s a very tricky balancing act,” Van Broekhoven acknowledges. “We’re going to learn by making mistakes, by not getting it right.” She adds: “We’re not a neutral space. You can’t be Switzerland. And Switzerland was never neutral anyway.”

Multiple strands of work are underway, many of them collaborations with other institutions. One is Thompson-Odlum’s Labelling Matters project, which aims to refresh displays while preserving some flavour of historic labels, which tell their own stories. Another is a scheme exploring how African heritage objects in European museums can be returned; it’s led by Dan Hicks, whose 2020 book on the Benin bronzes scandal, The Brutish Museums, brought that issue much-needed publicity. A third is a policy of proactive engagement with Naga communities in northeast India: the museum has the largest collection of Naga objects anywhere in the world, including some 213 human remains, which now look likely to be returned. 

Everyone I speak with agrees that opening up dialogue with people from the places where artefacts originated is crucial. Since 2017, deputations of Maasai people have travelled from east Africa to Oxford to advise on nearly 200 Maasai objects in the collection, some of which are sacred and thus especially sensitive. Perhaps predictably, they found the catalogue was inaccurate, and told museum staff that they were “annoyed, annoyed, annoyed” about the ways their culture was being misrepresented. 

Yet, in this instance, conversations focused less on returning objects than on showing them with dignity and accurate context. Maasai people have been creating new educational materials. A “reconciliation ceremony” uniting families in Maasai territory with Pitt Rivers curators and the descendants of original collectors is planned for next year. 

“The response is not so much, ‘We want this back’ as, ‘Let’s talk about this’,” says Thandiwe Wilson, one of the researchers working on the Maasai Living Cultures project. “The request is, ‘Could you please appropriately explain our heritage?’”

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Visitors at the Pitt Rivers. Photo: John Cairns

That said, it seems probable that some things will leave Oxford altogether. Flashing red on the list is the university’s stash of the looted Benin bronzes and other artefacts, some 145 objects in all, 94 of which are in the Pitt Rivers collection with another three on loan from the Ashmolean, another Oxford museum. A repatriation application by the Nigerian government was approved by the university this summer, and the Charity Commission’s final ruling is expected soon. If it goes through, the Pitt Rivers’s Benin artefacts could join another 116 held by the University of Cambridge and return to Nigeria in the largest Benin repatriation by UK institutions so far. 

The fate of the Ecuadorian “shrunken heads” is less certain. So far, no formal repatriation requests for the tstantas have been received. The museum is in dialogue with representatives of the Shuar and Achuar peoples, but until more DNA analysis is done it isn’t clear whose remains these actually are, still less where they originated. “We do this work on a case-by-case basis,” Van Broekhoven says.

The work is riven with ethical complexities. Objects could have been looted, purloined or expropriated, but they might just as well have been gifted, bartered, legally bought or specially made. Some argue that the inescapable power imbalance between, say, a European missionary and a Polynesian villager renders even “legitimate” acquisitions debatable. Others suggest that an artefact’s place in a museum collection is just as much a part of its history as its life before. 

In a maddeningly high number of cases, it simply isn’t clear how something ended up in the Pitt Rivers, Wilson says. “So often, we just don’t know. It’s a blank. We know when it entered the collection and sometimes who brought it in, but that’s more or less it.”

Objects in collections may stay the same, but their power is that their context may change

The museum has initiated a new procedure for anyone wanting to contest ownership, but this relies on someone actively making a claim and offering evidence that they should be the rightful owners. Untangling different interest groups or competing claims can be an intricate process; who, after all, should speak on behalf of an early 20th-century New Guinea axemaker, whose name was never recorded? What about objects created by the Sami people, long persecuted in northern Russia? If they’re returned, they are likely to be expropriated by the Russian government for its own purposes.

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An ivory mount from a ceremonial staff, depicting a horseman in the museum’s Benin display case. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

In a practical sense, it’s not as if the museum can simply return to sender, Van Broekhoven says. “It’s not like, you know, ‘I’ll just call DHL’. With the indigenous communities that we work with, it’s not how it operates.” 

And some traumas cannot be healed. On the way downstairs, Wilson takes me past the Benin case, still on display while its contents await their fate. Brass masks, statuary, animal heads, plaques, armlets and other objects glow softly in reflected light. She gestures to an ivory tusk intricately carved with human figures; the top half of it is badly scorched and browned, reputedly in the fire lit by the British to destroy the royal palace at Benin in 1897. The label touches on the military raid only briefly and makes no mention of the fire. “You don’t quite realise how sickening it is until someone points it out to you,” Wilson says. 

Museums like the Pitt Rivers have become lightning rods for nearly every storm system that passes over. Some are alarmed that the new currents flowing through the museum world threaten to crowd out other ways of thinking. Trevor Phillips, who is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and has been appointed to the government’s new Heritage Advisory Board, published a set of guidelines for heritage organisations last autumn suggesting, among other things, that “decisions about change should not unduly be influenced by what may be temporary shifts in public sentiment or taste”. 

When we speak, Phillips expresses concern that some museums are attempting to “rewrite history” without consultation. “Things have been happening without any kind of process,” he says. He also confesses bemusement that some objects in British museums have become so controversial. “I think we have to get all of this in perspective,” he tells me. “Is it really about the supposed offence being caused to unnamed patrons and visitors to museums, or is it part of a wider conversation about, for example, the authority of curators?” 

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 A view of the galleries at the Pitt Rivers. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Phillips insists that he doesn’t object to altering displays or recontextualising objects: “We don’t have infinite space to display things, and the visitor doesn’t have infinite time to look at everything.” What he does have a problem with is white curators signalling their own virtue by, for example, “changing the configuration of displays, which are not about telling the story, but about telling everybody else what a good person you are.

“I really don’t care whether they’re nice people or not nice people,” he continues. “I want them to tell me, to their best of their professional ability, what the story of the object is and put it in the right context.”

What counts as the “right” context is, of course, a ticklish question. On the other side of the argument stand activist researchers such as Sumaya Kassim, whose 2017 essay “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised” has become a reference point for many seeking change. For her epigraph, Kassim chose famous lines by the African American poet Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

photo (c) John Cairns photo (c) John Cairns

A sign in the main hall of the museum explaining the absence of the “shrunken heads” display. Photo: John Cairns

Reflecting on the debate in a phone interview, Kassim says she, too, has grave doubts about the way that some institutions are attempting to decolonise. “I’m concerned that the idea of decolonising, or the thinking behind it, is tokenised, and that there’s a dilution process going on. It becomes a redemption arc for white people,” she tells me.

Does she feel that some collections—particularly ethnographic ones—are just too problematic to keep open? Should some institutions return what can be returned, sell off what remains, and close their doors? She pauses. “Does that bring us closer to an equitable future? Or are you closing the doors to one of the few places that these conversations can be had in public?”

In his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, delivered on a visit to the United States in 1909, Sigmund Freud made a teasing suggestion about memorials and monuments. Having been erected as “memory symbols” to make something visible for all time, they almost always have the opposite function: as soon as they’re installed, we look straight past and forget that they’re there. Even more teasingly, Freud argued, we shouldn’t want it any other way: if, every time we passed, say, the Monument in London—erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666—we burst into tears, it would be a sign something was very wrong.

Museums can’t quite escape this psychoanalytical Catch-22: their purpose is ostensibly to remind us of the traumas and triumphs of the past, yet their role is also to provide a form of closure. Museums are filled with artefacts that were never intended to be there, and they appear in contexts wildly different to those that can have been imagined by the people who made them.

The anonymous Sami artisan who churned a block of reindeer-milk cheese in Norway late in the 19th century would presumably be astonished that it is still on display at the Pitt Rivers, 140-odd years later. The feelings of the flamboyantly talented indigenous artist from Haida Gwaii in British Columbia who carved the 11m-high totem pole that looms over the Pitt Rivers’s main floor are harder to guess at. Would he (possibly a man called Albert Edward Edenshaw) be appalled that it had been cut down and sold to a British museum in 1900? Or would he be pleased that it had survived, unlike so many other totem poles, burned by zealous Victorian missionaries?

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The Benin display case at the Pitt Rivers. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Recent research by the Pitt Rivers in collaboration with indigenous historians has revealed much about the pole’s history; after ancestral remains were returned, Haida artists have participated in programmes at the museum. In a pleasing circle that hints how such wounds might one day be healed, some of the artefacts they made have been taken back to Haida Gwaii to teach high school students about classic Haida art.

For Van Broekhoven, it is part of the museum’s purpose to enable such exchanges, interchanges and—perhaps—reconciliations. Pretending that decolonisation doesn’t need to happen is a non-starter, she argues. “It’s a bit like saying to a science museum that they can’t talk about nanotechnology or neurons, because in the 19th century we didn’t know about those,” she says.

Museums should sometimes be profoundly unsafe spaces, I find myself thinking as I prepare to head out from the shadowy main floor of the museum to the bright early summer sunshine. Like the “stumble stones” installed in many European streets to commemorate people murdered in the Holocaust, they need to trip us up. The objects in their collections may stay the same, more or less, but the power of physical objects is that their context can change: an artefact acquired to demonstrate, say, the glories of British expansionism now has a more troubling story to tell—one that we need to hear now more than ever.

“By saying you can undo some of that colonial harm, you’re not saying you can undo history,” Van Broekhoven says just before I head downstairs. “Clearly we can’t do that.” There is a light pause. “But we can change who we are today.”