It was behind-the-scenes night at the Field Museum in Chicago and the anthropology department had staff members displaying some of its wares. Here was my chance to ask the question that had been bothering me for years: What had happened to the shrunken heads? Like the baloney people and fetuses at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Ivan Albright paintings at the Art Institute, the Field Museum’s shrunken heads were a crucual rite of passage for generations of Chicago kids.
A staffer answered that they were in storage — at least they hadn’t been thrown out. The museum was no longer a place for curios, he said.
Aspiring to a more scientific mission is admirable and even appropriate. But that shouldn’t require denying the museum’s own historical legacy. Displaying curios is part of its history, and the highpoints of that history should remain accessible. And besides, between Bushman the stuffed gorilla still displayed in the basement and Sue the dinosaur, the museum’s multimillion-dollar T-Rex, there seems to be a continuing commitment to at least some curios.
Meanwhile, here’s the not entirely satisfactory explanation from the Field’s own Web site:
Why were the shrunken heads from South America taken off display?
“The shrunken heads from the Shuara (Jivaro) culture of lowland Ecuador were taken off display when the South America Hall was recently converted into the new Museum store. However, the exhibit in which the heads were showcased was outdated and needed to be revised. Today, we now know that headhunting was a part of the complex religious belief system of the Shuara, who placed a strong emphasis on creating a rich mythology and used shamanistic practices to unify the real and supernatural worlds. From ethnographical research conducted by anthropologist Michael Harner, we also know that the Shuara shrank heads not only of enemies caught in battle, but also of revered members of their community as a way to incorporate their spirits into those of the living.”
Associate Curator, Anthropology