Memorandum submitted by the Pitt Rivers
You asked me to send you an outline of the position
of the Pitt Rivers Museum with respect to "human remains"
in its collections. I hope the following brief notes are of assistance.
1. The Pitt Rivers Museum is the University
of Oxford's museum of ethnography and prehistory. Entrance is
free, it is now open to the public seven days a week, and is visited
by some 120,000 people a year. Its senior academic staff are also
University lecturers in cultural anthropology and archaeology,
and run postgraduate courses on Material Anthropology and Museum
2. Oversight of the Museum is exercised
by a University Committee, on which the Vice-Chancellor is represented,
and to which I am also Secretary.
3. The Museum's purpose is "to examine,
assemble, preserve and exhibit such objects as may increase knowledge
of Ethnography and Prehistory and promote the study of Man and
his Ecology in general, and to facilitate and assist such studies"
[Oxford University Statutes p 264].
4. The Museum's collections include some
275,000 artefacts and around 125,000 photographs, as well as an
Archive and one of the best cultural anthropology libraries in
5. A very small proportion of the Museum's
collection incorporates or comprises human remains. Generally,
a distinction would be made between artefacts proper (which though
they might incorporate body parts also reflect aesthetic and other
aspects of the producing culture) and unadorned biological specimens.
6. Artefacts incorporating or made from
human remains range from those in which human hair features, to
others incorporating human teeth or bones, to the shrunken heads
produced by some Amazonian groups, to Egyptian mummies.
7. Non-artefactual human remains mainly
comprise hard body parts (skulls and other bones). Such material
was acquired early in the Museum's history, most was subsequently
transferred to Oxford's Department of Human Anatomy in the middle
of the last century. Such material would not now be acquired,
and is not displayed. Nor, with very few exceptions, is this an
area in which the Museum's academic staff teach or research.
8. Museum staff are sharply aware of the
sensitivity attached by some indigenous cultures to the display
and treatment both of artefactual and of non-artefactual human
remains (as well as of other objects regarded as secret or sacred).
As cultural anthropologists, staff have special ties with indigenous
groups; as lecturers they also teach members of indigenous groups
who come as students on the postgraduate academic courses taught
by Museum staff. Where objections are received from members of
source communities to the display of any items in the Museum's
collections, they are carefully listened to and if they are representative
and clearly deeply felt, they are acted upon. Recently, a number
of tattooed Maori heads were removed from display as a result
of representations from Maori visitors.
9. To my knowledge (I have only relatively
recently taken up post) the Museum has only received one direct
request for the return of non-artefactual human remains. This
was received by my predecessor in 1990 from the Co-ordinator of
the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action and
from the President of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and related
to one jar containing soft tissue and five skulls from different
parts of Australia. The request was swiftly acceded to by the
supervising Committee for the Pitt Rivers Museum, expedited by
the clause in the Museum's statutes which allows the Committee
to dispose of material deemed irrelevant to the Museum's purposes.
The Committee's recommendation was endorsed by Oxford University's
Council, and the body parts in question were given into the care
of the Australian High Commission. The potential complexity of
repatriation was illustrated by the subsequent fate of one of
the repatriated skulls. This was dispatched by the Australian
authorities to an area from which its documentation indicated
that it had been collected. There it was apparently received with
dismay by the local Tiwi Land Council who had no knowledge that
its return had been sought. With its typically scanty documentation,
there was no means of linking the skull to specific family or
land. The Chairman of the Land Trustees "considered it a
cultural offence to have body remains foisted upon a generation
that had no knowledge of their origins and was being invited to
invent some in order to dispose of the remains".
10. Aside from this case, an approach was
made last year by the Chief Executive of the Museum of New Zealand
to discuss the future of the Maori tattooed heads earlier removed
from display. In the event, the Chief Executive was not able to
make the meeting which had been arranged at her request, but it
is likely that on a future visit discussions will be resumed.
11. Museums receiving requests for the repatriation
of material, whether those comprising or including body parts
or indeed other artefacts, now have available the recent Museums
and Galleries Commission's Restitution and Repatriation: guidelines
for good practice. The Pitt Rivers Museum will follow these:
indeed has in practice already done so for a number of years,
and was consulted in drawing them up in the first place.