How does a flap over shrunken heads show that our Enlightenment emphasis on the truth has also shrunken?
The shrunken heads are in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. The remains of around 2,000 human beings have long been part of a famous exhibit reflecting the way tribes in the upper Amazon dealt with defeated enemies: they shrunk their heads.
The museum staff has grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the exhibit and wants to “repatriate” the heads. Is this because of pressure from descendents in the Amazon? Not at all. It is because of political correctness.
Maria Grasso makes this point:
“The rise of the issue of repatriation within Western circles reflects the decline of Enlightenment values in intellectual thought. The relativistic notion that there is no such thing as ‘Truth,’ but rather that there are ‘many truths,’ means that museum exhibitions that claim to reveal something true and meaningful about man’s history and development can be looked upon as elitist. The disdain for Western civilisation and its gains that is quite widespread today has given rise to a celebration of earlier, more ‘simple’ civilisations and their mystical belief systems and habits. Consequently, any Western museum that displays objects from other cultures can feel itself under pressure to justify what it is doing or even to pack the objects away or return them to their ‘rightful owners.’
Furthermore, the notion that certain objects would be better placed in the hands of Native peoples is based on the patronising idea that these peoples are ’empty’ or ‘unfulfilled’ because they are missing an item their ancestors owned 200 or 300 years ago. It is a fatalistic view of humans that believes they need to bury old artefacts in order to feel complete and truly human.
“In my view, these shrunken heads belong in a museum like the Pitt Rivers Museum, and nowhere else.”