Thursday, May 24, 2007

Museum offered head for shrinking

An artist has offered to donate his own head to an Oxford museum - if a collection of shrunken heads has to be returned to South America.

Ted Dewan has written to Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum to offer his own head for shrinking.

Museums have been facing an ethical debate about whether they should keep human remains on display or repatriate them for burial.

But the museum has now turned down Mr Dewan's offer of a replacement head.

Children's author and artist, Mr Dewan is offering to leave instructions in his will for his head to be shrunk and put on display, if the Oxford museum's current collection of 10 heads from the Upper Amazon region has to be repatriated.

'Family friendly'

Mr Dewan says that he hopes that any posthumous display of his head would have a "family friendly" appeal.

"I shall also leave enough funding specifically to cover the costs of storage, shrinking, curating, and maintenance of the shrunken head in the Victorian display case," says Mr Dewan.

"Perhaps the case could be relabelled Treatment of Dead Benefactors," says Mr Dewan - who has assured the museum that he is serious in his intention.

But the museum has rejected the donation saying it "cannot be a place for accommodating a request such as this, whatever strength of belief lies behind it".

The museum says "however, we hope to continue to see Mr Dewan, alive and well, at the Pitt Rivers".

Mr Dewan had told the museum in his letter that returning the shrunken heads would mean losing its "most awe-inspiring collection of artefacts".

And he says that burial plans are a serious issue for people who do not want the trappings of religious or civil ceremonies - with the museum representing a sacred place where he would like his remains to rest after death.

"The Pitt Rivers Museum is a wonderfully inspiring and Holy place for me... Being an ethically sensitive institution that honours the belief systems of indigenous peoples, no matter how obscure, I'm sure the Museum would not discriminate against my belief system."

'Dead enemies'

Museums and universities have been debating the ethics of whether they should continue to display or retain human remains - with calls that this shows a lack of respect for many native cultures from which the remains were taken.

The Pitt Rivers Museum's shrunken heads, held in a case entitled Treatment of Dead Enemies, were examples of how Amazon tribesmen took their enemies' heads as trophies.

The anthropological museum holds more than 2,000 human remains, including 300 skulls - and as with other museums, it says it has been debating how such items should be displayed.

The Natural History Museum in London has recently agreed to return the remains of a number of aboriginal people from Australia and Tasmania, collected by the museum in the 19th Century.

This museum alone holds almost 20,000 humans specimens, including very ancient bones, with the majority of these items from the UK.

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