From Shrunken Heads to Collective Conversations

Manchester Museum’s galleries are in a constant cycle of renewal, but none have undergone such a radical transformation in both display and interpretation as ethnography.

For over a century Manchester Museum has opened its doors and invited visitors to explore its collection of extraordinary objects. As the little girl gazes in wonder, pointing at the huge skeleton suspended above, holding her hand, granddad remembers the moment in his childhood, having successfully negotiated the curses of the ancient Egyptian mummies, standing in that very same spot and marvelling for the first time at the huge sperm whale.

Moments like this happen at Manchester Museum every day.

sperm whale

Time moves on and the whale, mummies, and so many others remain alongside popular new additions, not least Stan the T-Rex, yet some objects have not survived time’s test so well. In the early twentieth century the ethnology collection monopolised four of the museum’s galleries, including the entire 1927 extension, yet now it is contained within the one ‘Living Cultures’ gallery, extending in part into the interdisciplinary ‘Manchester Gallery’.


What happened? Other collections have their own ethical challenges—animal rights, display of human remains, authenticity of displaying replicas, etc., so what caused this drive, by both the museum and an increasingly multicultural society, to redisplay and reinterpret the ethnography collection?

In simple terms, anthropology was an academic discipline spawned among the landscape of ground-breaking theories of evolution during the mid-nineteenth century. In this age of imperial European global domination, Western schools of thought used comparisons with indigenous peoples to posit theories of social development from primitive, through savage and barbarous, towards civilisation—placing the ‘primitive’ as something exotic and Other to Western ‘civilisation’. This dialectic has had a lasting influence on science and history, as well as fiction and popular culture.

Further, in many museums there have been concerns that ethnographic objects represent the spoils of empire and are burdened with the guilt of the atrocities of their colonial past. In the post-colonial climate of the late twentieth, this left some museums with often extensive ethnographic collections that no longer rested well with their institution’s vision.

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, collecting was hardly a new thing. As early as the Middle Ages, people of wealth had collected relics as symbols of power, and over time the spectrums of both the collectors and the objects collected broadened to include not just those of religious significance, but also ‘naturalia’—precious stones, shells, tusks and ‘unicorn horns’, and also oddities in jars, like conjoined foetuses; and ‘artificialia’—human-crafted vases, sculptures, coins, scientific instruments, and the exotic objects brought back from Africa, Asia and the Americas. This was the beginning of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’, a concept that encapsulates the wonder of this age at the turn of the seventeenth century. These exotic objects inspired early modern Europeans to question traditional knowledge and move towards new ways of thinking about the world and its objects.


Conceptually, this is not too far removed from today’s museums, and the ways in which visitors are challenged to enter into a dialogue with the world and its cultures.

Along with the morbid intrigue that accompanied Egyptian mummies and ‘monstrous births’, and the phallocentric power symbols of ancient and exotic weapons, Cabinets of Curiosity and early modern museums were often philanthropic, looking to publically exhibit and share their collections as an encyclopaedic knowledge, privileging completism and chronology. Into the mid nineteenth century, this complimented emerging academic disciplines of zoology, botany, numismatics and archaeology, in which things could be named, dated, listed and compartmentalised. In terms of modernity and museum classification, it was arguably the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 all of a sudden allowed humanity to be likewise studied and labelled.

The consequent rise and development in social and human anthropology, ethnology and ethnography gave increasing currency to collections of objects from indigenous peoples worldwide. It was believed that the observation of ‘savage’ and ‘barbarous’ peoples, through ethnographic research, would help to contextualise archaeological material and further the understanding of how Western society had achieved ‘civilisation’. The resulting drive towards the so-called ‘civilisation’ of indigenous peoples, especially in Africa, was one of the justification narratives used by British and other European imperial forces for their oppressive colonisations.

By the mid-twentieth century, through bequest, donation, exchange and field collection, Manchester Museum had amassed an extensive ethnology collection, including ‘fetish dolls’ and ‘shrunken heads’. Visitors could be reassured of their own civilised ways by looking through the museum’s window onto an altogether different world.


There are many stories, particularly on local online forums for museum memories, from people who remember Manchester at some point having displayed a ‘shrunken head’. Whether or not this was ever the case, this fascination perhaps reveals more about society and popular culture at the time than the display of the tsantsa did about the semi-nomadic Jivaroan or Shuar people of Peru and Ecuador who made and used it.

As the twentieth century moved onwards, thinking became more critical, and museums became more self-aware. There was an increased consciousness in the language used to describe both people and objects, and particularly an increased sensitivity towards the display of human remains. The changes in the ways that humanity is seen and represented, and the laws regarding the storage of human tissue, have had a huge impact on museums that store and display human remains including body parts. This has affected Egyptology, archaeology and ethnography collections alike. Particularly with ethnographic collections, there are numerous instances when this has resulted in repatriations to the physical and cultural descendants, including the high profile ceremony at Manchester Museum in July 2003 in which four skulls were returned to a delegation of Australian Aboriginal elders.


At this time there must have been concerns among museum professionals that this would open the floodgates for disputes in ownership and claims for restitution. By and large this was not the case. It currently seems that access to objects is more important for source communities. Museums with ethnography collections, are meeting this challenge for access in many practical ways, including engaging and collaborating with diverse worldwide communities.

What has this meant for Manchester?

Historically, Ethnology’s shift away from natural history towards archaeology has been connected as much with physical space and staff personalities at Manchester Museum as with intellectual change within anthropology[i]. The Museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins, like contemporaries Pitt Rivers and Lubbock, advocated ethnology as a science, with both human remains and artefacts displays as part of the evolutionary process of natural history.


It wasn’t until the appointment of Roderick Urwick Sayce as keeper that there was a significant move of ethnographic collections away from biology. His background was in anthropology and geography, and as elsewhere Bronislaw Malinowski was advocating a disciplinary separation from material culture, it was Sayce who renamed Manchester’s collection ‘Ethnography’, as this best fitted the non-material emphasis and his own links with geography. And it was under James Forde-Johnston in 1969 that there came complete conceptual and physical disciplinary separation of Ethnology from archaeology as well as natural history.

The current ‘Living Cultures’ gallery was conceived by curator George Bankes, whose doctoral thesis was on Moche pottery, with an extensive grounding in fieldwork in Peru. He communicated with both archaeological and anthropological audiences, through direct comparisons with contemporary and archaeological objects.


‘Living Cultures’ was officially opened in October 2003. Bankes intended the gallery to be an ‘object-dense’ exhibition, divided thematically, and that objects should be related to their originating communities. The four main themes of the gallery are ‘Out of Clay’, ‘Weapons and Armour’, ‘Cloth and Clothing’ and ‘Masks and Carvings’.

According to Bankes[ii] there are objects from at least 103 originating communities and this vast number made the involvement of all communities in decisions about how their culture should be represented impossible. His methods of involving source communities included making them aware during fieldwork that objects and photographs were for museum display; a process he used when collecting pottery in Mórrope and Simbilá, and sending images and printed material relating to exhibitions to source communities. It was also Bankes’ intention to include quotations from makers on the gallery information panels in order to give a voice to the originating communities; these however were not included in the final gallery design.

Consultation was made during the design phase with the Museum’s Community Advisory Panel, members of which were able to give additional contextual information to some of the objects intended for display. They were further given a voice by the ‘Rekindle’ project whereby short films were made while they talked about their chosen objects. These films are currently available on interactive screens in the gallery.

Ethnography is a constantly transforming discipline, in which even the language used to describe objects is continually changing. ‘Living Cultures’ went a long way to bring new and divergent narratives out of the museum’s collection. Over a decade on and Manchester Museum is still committed to addressing diverse audiences, and promoting understanding between cultures. Stephen Welsh, the current curator of Living Cultures, works with individuals along with school and community groups who continue to use the collection to explore cultural identity, some of whom have been recorded as a series of short films, titled ‘Collective Conversations’.

Today the museum is still a cabinet, of sorts, it still inspires curiosity in visitors of all ages, and surely there is still a desire to marvel at the extraordinary, but this is done in new ways; reconnecting and collaborating with source communities, and extending this beyond the museum walls and gallery spaces. It is no longer one, unilinear narrative, but a place of shared memories, new stories and collective conversations.

Post by Michelle Scott

[i] Alberti, S.J.M.M. (2006) ‘Culture and Nature: The Place of Anthropology in the Manchester Museum’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 18, Oxford, Museum Ethnographers Group, pp. 7-21.

[ii] Bankes, G. (2006) ‘From Explorers and Encounters to Living Cultures’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 18, Oxford, Museum Ethnographers Group, pp. 23-36.


5 thoughts on “From Shrunken Heads to Collective Conversations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s