Only recently having had my first personal experience with death, the museum in the past few months has felt like one monumental memento mori. The very building itself is a tribute to each and every participant in creating the ROM, whether a bricklayer or a financial backer. Meanwhile its insides are bursting with objects created by the deceased, depicting ideas of death, and in some galleries even human remains.

Shrunken head or tsantsa The inevitable pit in my stomach which accompanied my every trip made it impossible not to be reminded of my late grandfather no matter what I looked at. The paintings began to look like his, any mention of his culture prompted an anxious desire to learn all I could before he was forgotten, even the price tags in the gift store brought me almost to tears as I heard his voice complaining about the expense.

With this mind frame as my new norm, I perused the artifacts over and over until I believed I had seen all that could upset me. I had seen all the human remains that I had heard other talk about, I had spent hours in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China acquainting myself with the culture I had neglected while my grandfather was alive. I had faced the many ominous memento mori within the museum and came out no worse for wear.

It wasn’t until I entered the Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific gallery from the Samuel European Galleries rather than the Stairs of Wonder that I saw the tsantsa.

On the third floor, looking west on Bloor St., there is a shrunken head in the far corner of the gallery. The turned up nose one of the few recognizable human features, it is oddly unobtrusive with its long hair hiding the sockets which once contained eyes. The lips have been sewn shut in a decorative manner with the unused strings left dangling, mimicking the length of the hair. Adorned with red and yellow feathers on each side of the face, the head is placed amongst tools of war and hunting. On the floor in front of the case is a bright pink sign stating “Yes, the shrunken head is real.”

The culture, gender, age, and all understanding of who the head belonged to before death occurred lost, the tsantsa is represented solely as a depiction of Shuar warfare and religion. A once living human reduced to an unexplained oddity. The tsantsa affected me unlike any other object in the ROM, like a young adult after their first time seeing an R rated movie. The other memento mori seemed PG13 in comparison to the tsantsa. Unlike the many urns and skeletons on display in the ROM this was not a depiction of proper burial rites, but a depiction of a common mutilation preformed by one culture on the people of another. No matter how the label framed it, this was once a living person capable of love, creations and beliefs. Just as we all are, just as my grandfather was. Now it is reduced to the back of the gallery, in an unsettling display depicting it as an oddity to be gawked at. Robbed it its humanity.

Shrunken head or tsantsa museum label The tsantsa or shrunken head within the Royal Ontario Museum’s gallery of Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific belongs to the Shuar culture of the Amazon. The exact provenance of the head is unknown, which is made clear by the label stating the tsantsa’s date of origin to be “early 20th century?”. While some labels in the ROM provide information on who donated the object (such as Hell’s Judges coming from the George Crofts Collection), the label belonging to the tsantsa does not include this information. Without knowing who donated the artifact to the ROM it is difficult to confirm how long the artifact has been in the ROM’s possession. Fortunately the ROM’s website gives us a clue to the time the museum acquired the tsantsa in the form of a recollection written by an employee named Gale Gibson. Gale describes her childhood experiences within the ROM which took place between the 1930s and the 1960s and included admiring a shrunken head (presumably the same).1 These clues lead to the likelihood that the ROM acquired the tsantsa somewhere between 1900 and 1930. This time of acquisition is very likely given the social history of tsantsas.

Within Shuar culture, tsantsas were created in order to protect the warrior from the deceased’s soul which “seeks to kill the murderer or members of his family”.2 The Shuar people believe that the warrior has multiple souls: one which all people have that is released and transformed into a demon at the time of death, and the warrior’s soul, which is not a part of the warrior inherently but can inhabit strong men.3

The use of the tsantsas within the culture, however, was largely based around the ritual and feasts which took place after one warrior killed another, during which the power of the deceased warrior’s soul would be transferred and used to increase the warrior’s household’s food production.4 After the ceremonies, they were usually either kept by the warrior as souvenir or traded.5

Production of tsantsas greatly increased during the latter half of the 1800s when trade opportunities expanded with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries.6 The Shuar would trade the tsantsas for weapons such as guns and machetes which gave them an unfair advantage in local warfare.7 During this upswing in tsantsa creation, it seems as though the religious practice of transferring souls became a secondary concern for the Shuar. Although women and children were not believed to have the soul which could be acquired in the creation of the tsantsa, at least one account of a Shuar raid at this time described the leader to have “ordered that all, except young women, be killed and that the heads of the dead be taken regardless of age or sex.”8 This trading practice continued into the 1950s; around the same time young Gale was admiring the shrunken head in the ROM.9 Due to the extreme upswing in the number of tsantsas being produced and that “the final resting place of the tsantsa was more often in the hands of an Ecuadorian trader, foreign tourist, or museum than the grave of the slayer,” it is likely that the shrunken head within the ROM was produced during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.10

The gallery of Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific is ambitious considering the size of the room and the variety of cultures represented in it. According to the first label visible when entering the gallery from either entrance, “It is a space which celebrates the diversity of humankind”. While that much is undeniable, the sheer number of diverse cultures represented within the gallery leaves for little room to display each culture and even less to explain the objects. In an attempt to distinguish the artifacts from one another, each case displays a colour 
 coded map and label representing the very general area its contents came from. However the labels are not in a coherent order that would allow for an obvious path which would support a full understanding of the labels and therefore contents of the gallery. It has been argued that “If an exhibition contains different thematic sections, visitors will need to use some exhibit elements in each section to understand the different themes.”11 However, the current gallery layout means the ROM attendee will not necessarily notice that the green case on their left displays artifacts from Mexico and Central America while the green case on their right displays artifacts from South America – Amazonia, the Andes and the Northern Coast.

While the objects housed within each case belong to the same general locations, they represent vastly different cultures. The majority of the artifacts which share a case with the tsantsa belong to the Kayapó culture, who are unrelated to the Shuar. In fact, the tsantsa is displayed in front of a variety of war and hunting tools which belong to the Kayapó and a few other cultures. While I was observing the object’s location, many passers by discussed the perceived connection between the shrunken head and the instruments of war around it. Not only are the Shuar and Kayapó cultures completely separate, but the tsantsa, if truly created in the early twentieth century, was likely attained with tools such as shotguns and machetes rather than a bow and arrow, round club or blow gun similar to those sharing space with the tsantsa. No matter how the tsantsa was created, if it is to be housed with objects from another culture that should be brought to the attention of the visitor in order to limit misunderstandings.12 There are many ways in which this could be implemented. A simple solution would be to include additional information on the item’s label, such as a short explanation about the tools which would have been used to create it. Another solution would be to make a clear partition between the Shuar tsantsa and the Kayapó instruments of war, however that would be logistically difficult depending on the amount of Shuar artifacts the ROM has which are not currently on display as well as the amount of available gallery space. No matter the solution, the tsantsa should be clearly represented as a separate culture and not be seen as a Kayapó spoil of war.

The misleading representation of the commonalities between Shuar and Kayapó cultures’ objects is no doubt a hindrance to the education of the museum attendee. However the representation of the tsantsa as an object of “Shuar culture” is in itself a problematic choice of words. While there is no denying the creation origins of the tsantsa, the fact that this was once a living human being brings into question the representation of the artifact as Shuar. As “heads were taken from non- Shuar with whom the Shuar otherwise lived in peace, more commonly from the Achuar”, the tsantsa was once part of another separate culture located in the same region as the objects in the case.13 To describe this tsantsa simply as an “enemy head” belonging to the “Shuar culture” leaves the museum attendee staring into the sewn up eye sockets of a nameless, bodiless, culture-less oddity. Further, by defining the tsantsa purely by their original purpose and omitting the role the colonial economy had in the production of tsantsas, the ROM fails to acknowledge shared history.14 The late nineteenth century trading the Shuar took part in with the Euro-American population likely prompted an upswing in the amount of tsantsas the Shuar created, resulting in colonialism being responsible for the creation of a number of the tsantsas.15 In this way the ROM joins the ranks of other museums which “fail to present a clear and coherent understanding of colonialism and its ongoing effects.” ((Ibid., 359-360))  ((Lonetree, “Museums as sites of Decolonization.” 322))

Compared to other displays contained within the ROM, the placement of the tsantsa seems to be somewhat of an afterthought. Human remains in other galleries such as the gallery of Egypt are displayed with like-objects (human and non-human remains alike) creating an area dedicated to the deceased. This organization of artifacts allow for a more in-depth analysis into who they were, what the practice consisted of and why they practiced it. Sometimes these explanations even include diagrams. Although there is an abundance of research on who the Shuar were, what the practice of creating the tsantsas consisted of and why the Shuar practiced it, the museum label only states that the tsantsa was an aspect of warfare and an explanation on how the heads were created. The label leaves out all of the religious and cultural purposes for the head completely despite the fact that labels in other galleries are much more detailed. Further, the representation of the deceased in the gallery of Egypt exhibits the respectable burial rites to which the deceased subscribed, rendering the ethical treatment of the bodies comparably less complex.

In a survey of American museums regarding their acceptance of human remains, “Ethics was by far the factor most commonly listed as most important.”15 What each museum considered ethical, however varied, as both museums that accepted human remains as well as museums that did not accept human remains described ethics as “most important” in their policies.16 Repatriation is a concept which is closely linked to the ethical treatment and acceptance of human remains into museums. A popular request beginning around the 1970s, repatriation is the return of an object to its original country or people.17 At least twelve tsantsas were repatriated to the Shuar by 1995, which is notable as the Shuar still consider the tsantsa to be “sacred.”18 The ROM has a policy “to facilitate the return of human remains to descendant Aboriginal communities if this is the expressed wish of these communities,” It is unclear, however, whether the tsantsa in the ROM was not repatriated due to the Shuar not requesting the artifact or to the fact that the ROM’s policy specifically pertains to “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.”19

In relation to the tsantsa on display inside the ROM, the only aspect which seems to hold great importance to either museum attendees or curators is the bright pink sticker which states “Yes, the shrunken head is real.” The lack of information along with its placement in the museum results in the tsantsa being represented as a shock inspiring curiosity of a far off culture, rather than the human remains belonging to an unfortunate person whose death was quite possibly motivated by the high value paid for tsantsas by colonialists who wished to purchase them as curiosities for personal collections or to place in museums such as the ROM.


  • Royal Ontario Museum. “Gayle’s Story” Accessed Dec 5, 2014.
  • Royal Ontario Museum “Repatriation of Human Remains of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada” Accessed Dec 5, 2014.
  • Rubenstein, Steven L. “Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” Cultural Anthropology 22 (2007): 357-399. Accessed Dec 1, 2014.
  • Steel, Daniel. “Trade Goods and Jivaro Warfare: The Shuar 1850-1957, and the Achuar, 1940-1978” Ethnohistory 6 (1999): 745-776. Accessed Nov 30, 2014.
  • Serrell, B. “Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors’ Time in Museum Exhibitions.” Curator: The Museum Journal, 40 (1997): 108–125.
  • Serrell, Beverly “Types of Lables in Exhibitions” In Exhibit Labels: An interpretive Approach, 21-36. Walnut Creek: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1996
  • Lontree, Amy “Museums as sites of Decolonization” In Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspective, edited by Susan Sleeper-Smith, 322-337. University of
  • Nebraska 2009
  • Edgar. Heather J.H. and Anna L.M. Rautman. “Contemporary Museum Policies and the Ethics of Accepting Human Remains” Curator: The Museum Journal 57 (2014): 237-247. Accessed Dec 1 2014.
  • Kakaliouras, Ann M. “When Remains are “Lost”: Thoughts on Collections, Repatriation, and Research in American Physical Anthropology” Curator: The Museum Journal 57 (2014): 213-223. Accessed Dec 1, 2014.

Contributor Biography: Joei Lyn-Piluso

Joei is an undergraduate student working on a specialist degree in religious studies at the University of Toronto. Born into a family of immigrants from five countries with largely different cultures, languages and religious beliefs, Joei has always had an interest in the different cultures and histories from around the world. The wide range of culture within her own family helped prompt her interest in religious studies. She wrote this paper for a third year course about religion within museums, which spent every other week at the ROM. The paper, which was to include a personal reflection on an artifact followed by a formal paper, was written four months after her grandfather of Chinese-Jamaican descent had died. His recent death had a large effect on her experience in the class and on this paper.

  1. “Gayle’s Story,” Royal Ontario Museum, accessed Dec 5, 2014. 

  2. Steven L. Rubenstein, “Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” Cultural Althropology 22 (2007): 363, accessed Dec 1, 2014. 

  3. Rubenstein, “Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” 362-363 

  4. Ibid., 364 

  5. Ibid., 364-5 

  6. Daniel Steel, “Trade Goods and Jivaro Warfare: The Shuar 1850-1957, and the Achuar, 1940-1978” Ethnohistory 6 (1999): 754, accessed Nov 30, 2014. 

  7. Ibid., 754 

  8. Ibid., 755 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Rubenstein, “Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” 366 

  11. Beverly Serrell, “Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors’ Time in Museum Exhibitions.” in Curator: The Museum Journal, 40 (1997): 120, accessed Dec 1, 2014. 

  12. Beverly Serrell, “Types of Lables in Exhibitions” in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (Walnut Creek: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.1996), 24. 

  13. Rubenstein, “Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” 363 

  14. Ibid., 360 

  15. Heather J.H. Edgar and Anna L.M. Rautman, “Contemporary Museum Policies and the Ethics of Accepting Human Remains” Curator: The Museum Journal 57 (2014): 244, accessed Dec 1 2014. 

  16. Edgar and Rautman, “Contemporary Museum Policies,” 244-245 

  17. Ann M Kakaliouras, “When Remains are ‘Lost’: Thoughts on Collections, Repatriation, and Research in American Physical Anthropology” Curator: The Museum Journal 57 (2014):214, accessed Dec 1, 2014. 

  18. Rubenstein, “Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.” 374, 358. 

  19. Repatriation of Human Remains of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada” ROM Board Policy, accessed Dec 5, 2014.