A COLLECTION of shrunken heads, which has for decades intrigued visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, could be removed.

Curators at the visitor attraction in Parks Road, attached to Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, are in discussion with representatives of the Shuar people of the Amazon rainforest over the future of the shrunken heads, regarded by the tribe as having deep religious significance.

Oxford Mail:

Curators at the museum, where the seven human heads have been displayed since the 1940s, started working last year with the Shuar on a project on how they should be represented at the museum.

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Two scalps previously displayed in the same glass case, labelled Treatment of Dead Enemies, have been removed and placed in storage following complaints by Native American communities who felt the display did not properly explains their traditions.

Oxford Mail:

Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, said: “We know the collection of heads is cherished by many, but there are also many people who feel uncomfortable with it.

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“There are questions about whether human remains should be on display. We are undertaking a project with Shuar representatives and the San Francisco University in Quito to see how they feel about the way their culture is being represented in the shrunken heads display.

"Their concerns are whether there is a proper understanding of the way this elaborate leather making of human skin into a ceremonial object was done, and that it no longer is done today.”

Oxford Mail:

In November five members of the Maasai tribe, from Tanzania and Kenya met curators to help them better represent their culture. Dr Van Broekhoven said one solution might be to improve display material explaining the significance of the shrunken heads. Complete with skin and hair, the heads, known as tsantsas, were made by the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and Peru up until the 1960s.

Oxford Mail:

In 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC repatriated shrunken heads in its collection to Ecuador.

Dr Van Broekhoven said: “There will be a period of consultation with the Shuar but for now the display will stay as it is.

“If we jointly conclude it is inappropriate to show the tsantsas, they might be taken off display but there is no indication  so far that this is the case."