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By Lisa O'Sullivan on

‘Where Are The Shrunken Heads?'

We curators field lots of questions from the public about the Museum collections. One of the most common ones is when visitors remember seeing something when they came as a child, and now, back with their children, or grandchildren, want to know why they can’t find it again.

Sometimes the answer is simple (the dinosaurs are next door!). At other times, galleries have closed, or objects been taken off display – and this is the fate of our shrunken heads, or tsantsas.

Traditionally, these were made by the Jivaro tribes, based in the Amazon, in areas which are now part of Ecuador and Peru. Shrunken heads were made as part of elaborate rituals, to celebrate victory over a slain enemy. You can find out more here and here.

Ours came off display because they were in an inaccessible part of the museum. If they had not, we would still have needed to reconsider their display in response to new guidelines about how human remains are displayed in museums.

The next question I usually get is: ‘ Would you put them back on display?’. The answer to this is a – qualified – yes.  But it would have to be in the appropriate circumstances.  What would these be?  An exhibition looking at traditional cultures in the Amazon perhaps.  But it’s properly not an exhibition I will be asked to curate any time soon.

So for those still looking for shrunken heads, the best place to go is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, or the Wellcome Collection in London. Or for anyone in Philadelphia, the very fabulous Mutter Museum is preparing a large exhibition of tsantsas to open soon.

If there are any questions you would like to ask a curator please leave them as comments below…

One comment on “‘Where Are The Shrunken Heads?'

  1. Hi Lisa – hope you get to curate that exhibition one day though…

    For anyone who’d like to get the background on why the Shuar make shrunken heads…(including detailed instructions on how to do it) I presented a documentary for Channel 5 that they have put online here

    (Only viewable from the UK..everywhere else on the planet can see it when it goes out on National Geographic)

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