Committed to Change
At the Pitt Rivers Museum, we condemn racism in the strongest terms; we work towards becoming an anti-racist institution and stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a museum, we know it is important not to be silent and to lend whatever support we can, both to our own staff members, and to the broader communities that are impacted by institutionalised, everyday racism and other exclusionary practices. We express our solidarity and our recognition of how museums like ours, and collections like ours, cannot be separated from the ongoing violence and systemic racism happening in Oxford, in the UK, in the US, and elsewhere.
The guiding principles of our Strategic Plan state that we aim to be part of a process of redress, social healing and the mending of historically difficult relationships. We acknowledge that the Pitt Rivers Museum can be an uncomfortable place for people to visit. Addressing colonial, racist and otherwise derogatory language on labels and/or in database description, doing provenance research into the manner in which objects were taken (eg. by the use of military violence or coercion) and, where requested, taking objects off display or enabling the return of objects to originating communities are all integral to that process.
We aim to be a place of listening to and learning from stakeholders and we want to be an inclusive, reflexive and thought-provoking museum, that enables audiences to perceive displays from different viewpoints. To truly live up to this, we know that we can do more, we can be better and we are committed to do so. We have a responsibility to speak out, and to ask and address uncomfortable questions which we have not asked persistently enough.
The Museum's rootedness in coloniality comes to us in materialized form through its unique Victorian galleries, the often-problematic language of its historic labels, and the very presence of its collections. Collections like the one we steward, were largely gathered during the time of the British Empire. During this period, systems and structures used for the exploitation of resources and people, including enslavement, were set up in institutionalised form in order to accumulate wealth and power for the colonisers. Part of that system of disempowerment of local authority was through the taking of (often sacred) objects. The people who took these objects felt entitled to do so; to appropriate them in order to represent cultural practices, and to speak about and for others from eurocentric perspectives. This process of taking and categorising cultural practice was often highly problematic, as there was no acknowledgement of the views of the originating communities and no reflection on the methods used to dispossess communities of these objects.
A visit to the Museum, therefore, evokes very different emotions and feeling with different people, depending on background and walks of life. For those who have heritage or roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very difficult and hurtful place to be, as it can be for people who have to confront ableist and heter-normative world views on a daily basis. Too often stories have been silenced, perspectives erased. Undoing this coloniality is integral to the work the Museum does today.
In October 2015 the student-led protest movement Rhodes Must Fall tweeted 'The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford'. As Brian Kwoba explained in The Cherwell newspaper, 'it houses thousands of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples throughout the world'. We are fully aware and acknowledge that the Museum, while much loved by many across the globe, should be (and has been) scrutinised, especially by ourselves. Lothar Baumgarten critiqued the Museum for being 'the Preserve of Colonialism'; Christian Kravagna has called it 'the manifestation of the denial of coevalness'; in 2017 Holly Hemming analysed how the language in our labels is often passive in tone, reductionist and in some cases, apologist and romanticises colonisation by using words that sound innocent and should be recognised as such. In June 2020 author Sunny Singh tweeted how seeing the Pitt Rivers made her think she might be having a 'Killmonger' fantasy and that it makes her skin crawl.
In the sector, the Pitt Rivers Museum is considered to be one of the institutions which is facing these issues head-on. Nonetheless, we know that we can do more and need to fearlessly take this work forward, and with a greater sense of urgency - especially now - making sure that our whole organisation is aligned to make the maximum contribution to the changes needed, so that it is translated throughout all our work, in all our outputs, learning methodologies and communications. Essential to this process is our acknowledgement of our ignorance and our complicity in discriminatory systems and their perpetuated existence. Only if we educate ourselves, can we reach deeper understanding and do better. To ensure that this learning is shared with everyone, all staff will be undertaking an ongoing programme of anti-racism and decoloniality training. In this way, we hope that the burden will be more evenly shared and will not rest solely on the shoulders of the people who already have to face racism and discrimination on a daily basis.
We firmly believe that museums like ours are spaces for the co-production of knowledge - connecting peoples and reconnecting people with things. We also believe that there are many unhelpful hurdles put in the way of doing that. These four themes, therefore, drive our programming, collecting, research and investments: No Binaries, No Boundaries, a serious investment in Redress and making the creative case for Health and Wellbeing.
From our work, we know that the Pitt Rivers Museum is a site where redress can happen through a variety of ways. We recognise that we are all part of this ongoing problem. We have an institutional responsibility to no longer be part of the continuation of these systems and as an institution, have been fore-fronting work that focuses on social justice and decoloniality through socially engaged practice.
Museums are bearers of difficult histories and their collections are continued causes of pain for affected communities. By unearthing and undoing through redress, we aim to work together to reimagine these museums as spaces in which reconciliation might be able to come about, to become anti-racist projects and sites of hope.
Provenance - Transparency - Repatriation - Redress
We do research on the provenance of our collections and strive to be transparent about their histories, but also the need for repatriation of collections, in particular, those taken as part of military violence or looting. The urgency of decoloniality is at the core of our work, with curatorial authority to be shared and/or handed to Indigenous curators, knowledge keepers and/or artists, who respond critically to the Museum. In our programming we prioritize voices of community members over curatorial voices and in our interpretation we aim to work towards the inclusion of epistemologies of the South that will offer more meaningful interpretations and understanding, so that we can work towards a more hopeful future that will keep the Museum relevant for generations to come.
Pitt Rivers Museum Policies and Practices of Return (Restitution/Repatriation)
The aim of the return of the Return of Cultural Objects document is to create a clear process for claims for the return of objects, where a formal request is made for the return of a cultural object. It sets out the procedure for assessment of eligibility to make a claim, the procedure for making a claim, as well as the setting out of the decision-making and appeals process. The document also sets out the processes for returns. The document is aimed at supplementing the extensive work being undertaken by the University museums and libraries to share the collections through loans and digital access and to develop ongoing relationships with communities whose cultures are represented in the collections. As part of the procedure outlined, potential claimants will be encouraged to start the process by contacting the museum in which the object is housed, to discuss the claim informally. This will enable a dialogue to be established between the museum and the potential claimant and allow a number of potential outcomes to be identified, including loans, touring exhibitions or the provision of information and professional advice.
The document is designed to sit alongside the existing Policy on Human Remains held by the University of Oxford's Museums (2006), which covers the return of unmodified human remains. The new document takes a more open and collaborative approach, which is in line with national and international efforts in this area. The wording is designed to be clear, so that potential claimants can easily understand the eligibility criteria and procedure for making a claim. The overarching principle is that claims will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The document sets out the procedures for claims relating to the return of cultural objects from Oxford University's Museums and Libraries. The development of the document has been led by Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with input from staff across the four University museums, the libraries, GLAM Collections Group and from external advisors. The document's first iteration was presented to the Board of Visitors of the Pitt Rivers Museum in April 2016, has been through a number of iterations following internal and external consultation over the past four years and has been reviewed in consultation with the Boards of Visitors of the four museums and the GLAM Board. Legal advice has been received from the University's Legal Services Office and from Farrer & Co. The procedures are in line with international and national conventions and laws relating to the returns of cultural objects, including the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property (14 November 1970) and the Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994.
The document covers the four University museums and the Bodleian Libraries. The procedures do not cover the Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum and the collections held by other University departments, such as the Bate Collection, the Oxford University Herbaria or the colleges.
Pitt Rivers Museum Practice
Pitt Rivers Museum returns:
- 20 ancestral remains have been agreed to be returned to Australia in 2020
- 10 ancestral remains were returned to Aoa Tearoa in May 2017. The intitial request was made in 2015 but conversations started in 1999. The Maori and Moriori remains, comprised of seven toi moko (ancestral mummified heads) and three kōiwi tangata (parts of a skull), were returned home in 2017
- 11 human remains and associated cultural material were returned to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation of Arizona, USA, in 2014
- 1 object returned to Canada in 2010
- 5 objects returned to Australia in 1990
Current pending official claim in process:
- 2020 - Hawaii (cultural objects)
Other ongoing conversations that are likely to lead to a claim/request and return:
- 2011 Conversations started with Bunyoro Kingdom delegates, Uganda (Bunyoro cultural objects)
- 2017 Conversations started with Shuar delegates, Ecuador
- 2017 Conversations started with Maasai delegates from Tanzania and Kenya about the representation and return of specific objects.
- 2018 Joined the Benin Dialogue Group
- 2019 Conversations started with partners in Australia , AIATSIS and joint research began into provenance of collections
- Since 2019 Pitt Rivers Museum has been working on research on the PRM Human Remains Collections with Dr Nicholas Marquez-Grant, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Anthropology, Cranfield Forensic Institute, Cranfield University
We have started a programme of work that researches the composition of the collections and identifies which collections are contentious. A comprehensive programme with external partners in different countries has started to collaboratively research provenance and start conversations about future care and we have also started to work towards self-representation with specific communities.
- The Pitt Rivers Museum is part of the Benin Dialogue Group, a multi-lateral collaborative working group, bringing together museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, with representatives of the Edo State Government, the Royal Court of Benin and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
- We are in conversation with representatives of the Shuar community, regarding the contested display of tsantsa in the Pitt Rivers Museum. The project is lead by Maria Patricia Ordonez from the Universidad de San Francisco, Quito.
- Rethinking Relationships, Building Trust around African Collections is a DCMS-funded project, begun in 2019, that develops new practice around the Kenyan and Nigerian collections at the Horniman Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum (University of Oxford), the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (University of Cambridge) and the World Museum in Liverpool. The project is working with heritage professionals, community members, researchers, artists and other stakeholders in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK to develop thinking about the future of the collections. The project lead researcher is JC Niala, Doctoral Researcher in Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
- African Cultural Networks - Professor Dan Hicks has received c.£800,000 from Open Society Foundations to work with partners in Egypt, Ghana and South Africa to build a network of partnering museums in the UK and institutions in Africa to share knowledge on restitution claims.
- Laser Focused: Craft Production and Trade Networks of Ancient Zimbabwe uses technology to analyse artefacts from the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Khami and Great Zimbabwe held in the Pitt Rivers collections and will help us to build our knowledge of the patterns of trade and craftsmanship over the last 1,000 years across southern Africa, enabling us to map the regional connections between Zimbabwe settlements as well as long-distance patterns of exchange across the Indian Ocean.
- The Maasai Living Cultures Project started in 2017 when Samwel Nangiria visited the Pitt Rivers Museum as part of an Indigenous Leadership programme organised by the NGO Insightshare. Over the course of three years, three visits by Maasai representatives from both Kenya and Tanzania have taken place. During these visits, the delegates expressed their concerns about the presence of five of the objects in Oxford and indicated that the continued presence of these objects in the Museum causes great concern. We are awaiting further guidance from the Chief Laibon (spiritual leader) of the Maasai, Laibon Mokompo Ole Parit, to look for ways to reconciliate. Conversations have also started about changing the way the Museum speaks about the Maasai in its displays and databases.
A selection of projects aimed at undoing coloniality
A comprehensive programme of work is tackling the violence of language that is used on the historic Pitt Rivers labels and the outdated, colonial categories used in the database. This programme also aims to reimagine the definition of labelling and find innovative forms of interpretation to challenge the traditional narratives of our current displays.
The Labelling Matters Project has identified derogatory, racist and other problematic language in the permanent galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The project, spearheaded by Marenka Odlum-Thompson, has made significant progress over the past year in identifying many of the main issues. Researchers are now working to analyse the scale of problematic language, using Big Data Analysis, together with a Datasprint exercise undertaken with researchers from the Technische Universitat Berlin to investigate the full database. The data analysts have found methods to investigate the language used in the database, making a map of the most problematic language and identifying erasures and absences, eg. only 5% of the documentation includes the name of the maker of objects.
To find out more, see the Labelling Matters page or listen to the Labelling Matters podcasts.
Pitt Rivers Museum Database transfer (CMS/DAMS project)
This transformational project is amalgamating our different collection databases and will make it much more intuitive to browse through the collections and do research on them, providing access and transparency for communities across the globe. As part of the transfer and data cleaning, we are updating cultural group names to work towards using autonyms and stop using racist and derogatory categories and terminology. The current list of names is woefully out of date and based either on donor or collector's information or on Ethnologue language group attributions. As a result, it often contains dated, incorrect, derogatory and/or racist terms. Not only are we hoping to create a primary list of appropriate terms, including as many autonyms as possible, but we are also hoping to create a number of thesauri, which can be attached to this list. This would enable searching by synonyms and alternate spellings. We would also like to be able to link smaller cultural groups to larger confederations. The Museum is working with First Nation and other experts to update the list.
Co-Curation and Socially Engaged Practice
We are starting to dig deeper into what stories we should be looking for in the archives and which ones have not been told because we have erased or silenced them. To unlock these stories we are working with a myriad of local and remote stakeholders to develop research and engagement.
- South Sudanese diaspora community with the South Sudan Museums Network (funded by AHRC), resulting in this video produced during their visit while gaining filming training.
- Maasai representatives from Kenya and Tanzania. For more information about this project, funded by the Staples Trust, see here.
- Rwandan Community: The 25th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda was commemorated with an exhibition, Kwibuka Rwanda, curated in consultation with members of the Ishami Foundation and members of the Rwandan community of Oxford, and a display called Bearing Witness.
- The Museum is a member of the Windrush Group, celebrating the arrival of the African Caribbean community in Britain on HMT Windrush in 1948. The Windrush Group includes local heritage organisations, museums, theatre makers, creatives and university partners. The Pitt Rivers Museum team have co-produced programming with these partners to highlight the stories and contributions of the African and African Caribbean community in Oxford, with events including A Nice Cup of Tea, Beyond Black History Month, Carnival Costume making at the Museum and Cowley Road Carnival as part of Windrush Day 2019 and Windrush Years: The Next Generation Launch event.
- Multaka-Oxford is a joint project between the History of Science and Pitt Rivers Museum, which has created inclusive volunteering opportunities for 64 people, who arrived in the city as forced migrants or asylum seekers. The project was co-developed with the volunteers to identify needs and programme. Local partner organisations include Asylum Welcome, Refugee Resource, Sanctuary Hosting and Connection Support. The project has developed its approach to ensure equitable collaborative partnerships with community partners, local people volunteering and the museums and their collections. The project started in 2017 at the Pitt Rivers Museum with funding fromm the Esmee Fairbairn Collection Fund and has continued with philanthropic support in 2020.
- Beyond the Binary: Trans Lives Matter is integral to Black Lives Matter and any steps to improve equality and equity need to consider intersectionality. This project worked with many external partners, including First Nations artists and students and featured a display called Losing Venus, about the impact colonisation had on laws around homosexuality. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Arts Council England.
- Radical Hope and Reconciliation. This programme works with sector leaders and experts from different countries, including from the UK, Tibet, Ghana, Haida Nation (Canada), A'aniiih Nation (USA), Brazil, Kenya and Tanzania, to think about forms of radical hope and reconciliation in museums that steward ethnographic collections. This is funded by the Pitt Rivers Museum, with a workshop funded by Wenner-Gren and TORCH.
- Tibetan Objects in Transition. Thousands of Tibetan objects are stored in museums around the world, but Tibetans often lack access to them and the opportunity to interpret them in their own terms. The display Tibetan Objects in Transition arose from the perceived need to insert contemporary Tibetan voices, narratives and perspectives into museum space(s). This case display was an experiment in creating a ‘Tibetan’ mode of displaying material culture which emphasises contemporary Tibetan voices, narratives and perspectives.
- Lande: The Calais Jungle reassembled material and visual culture that survived from the 'Jungle' to make visible the landscape of 'borderwork'. The research translated into a co-curated exhibition and a book entitled Lande: The Calais 'Jungle' and Beyond (Bristol University Press). The project was led by Sarah Mallett and Dan Hicks. The exhibiton was co-curated by Majid Adin, Shaista Aziz, Caroline Gregory, Dan Hicks, Sarah Mallett, Nour Munawar, Sue Partridge, Noah Salibo and Wshear Wali.
- The Pitt Rivers Museum is also partnering on a project entitled Museum Affordances funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which is re-engaging with a remarkable ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. As well as better understanding the historical context in which these materials were gathered, the project seeks to examine their significance in the present.
- In 2018 the project Messy Realities turned the museum into a meeting point for people from varied backgrounds and with different life experiences to come together and investigate the relevance of technology to their everyday lives, becoming the basis for a fascinating study on how 'historic' ethnographic material can become a catalyst to rethink 'contemporary' assistive living technologies.
- Museum of Others: In 2010 Christian Thompson became one of the first two Aboriginal students to study at the University of Oxford. During his DPhil at the Ruskin School of Art, Thompson worked with the Pitt Rivers' collection of photographs from Australia, resulting in an acclaimed exhibition We Bury Our Own (2012). Thompson has continued to draw inspiration from the Museum's collections and histories, and the series Museum of Others (2016), critically engages with the Museum's history and those who were significant in the development of its Oceania collections.
- Origins and Futures
- All of these projects rely entirely on philanthropic funding. This programme supports artists and makers in residence at the Museum as well as partnerships with interested parties and indigenous peoples from across the globe, including Tibet, Haida (Canada), San (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia), Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania), Luo (Kenya and Upper Nile valley), Ainu (Japan), Evenkia (Central Siberia, Russian Federation), Nepali, Bidjara (Australia), Ashanti (Ghana), Uganda.
- Collections-based work and research visits have been looking at Naga, Maori, Hawaiian, Aboriginal and Arab World collections.