Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Pitt Rivers Museum

  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 Ethnography.

  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 the country.

  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.

May 2000

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