The Ox-idental Tourist: the shrunken heads, Pitt Rivers museum

Art Art & Lit

There is something of a haunted-house quality to the Pitt Rivers. Dubious light quality and cases upon cases of academically shelved ‘objects’ make for a viewing experience which is at best alienating and at worst downright uncomfortable. Whether this serves as a kind of post-colonial commentary, or a note on the other viewers (who are themselves often academic and dubious) remains to be seen.

While such treasures as ‘a corn two inches long, taken off a Toe of one Sarney a Wheelwright, of St. Aldate’s Parish in Oxford, 1655’ have been regrettably pruned from the collection, the 500,000 or so gems that remain are nothing if not extraordinary.

Step in, then, from the University Museum, with its foul and fantastic collection of stuffed animals and its slight, inevitable mothball smell. The museum has been reinstated in deep Victorian tradition, with treasures laid out in all their glory. The famous totem pole grumpily watches over, while sleek obsidian mirrors fight for attention with glorious feather capes. There is no guide here, nor is there a ‘tourist’s walk’. A visit here is a self-directed one, with the audience encouraged to observe the artefacts in their own way and at their own leisure.

So a tip for the visitor then: pass the charms against the evil eye, and the monkey-skull toy for some lucky Dayak child. Then, in a case at the back (helpfully earmarked ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’) nestle ten little faces, bulbous and waxy. Treated with a combination of palm pins and herbs, they are severed but not necessarily severe; their features, while discernibly human, have a kind of Sesame-Street charm, all pouting lips and button noses. Jim Henson would be proud.

Our ten new friends come from the leafy Amazon basin, where, following death via vengeance or violence, their skulls were removed, their skins boiled, and their eyes wired shut. The whole thing was then blacked up in vegetable dye style. Less obviously, they had a fashionable function and would frequently be worn as pendants by their vanquisher, perhaps making a similar statement to huge contemporary male bling. Trendy indeed.

However, these are so much more than just a pretty face. Until as late as the 1960s, the practice was seen as a way to maintain cosmological order and as proof of male courage and virility. The British in the early 20th Century were rather mad for them and created a niche market for ‘fake heads’ made from sloths and monkeys. The bad boys on Parks Road, on the other hand, are the real McCoy. However, here’s a warning, these are not for the squeamish.

Natasha Frost