The travels of a head

Last year I contributed to the Wellcome Collection’s Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition, an examination of how brains have variously been collected, manipulated, used and abused by different bodies for different purposes across time and space. The exhibition (in its London showing, 29 March – 17 June 2012) saw around 105,000 visitors, and in the vein of most Wellcome productions, did not shy away from provocative displays and potentially controversial activities (e.g., the ‘hands-on’ Brain Jar public demonstrations).

In seeking out possible items to feature in Brains, I was reminded of a story that I’d heard during my PhD research about the head of the pioneering British archaeologist and anthropologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Labelled the “father of scientific archaeology” (Sheppard 2010) for his significant (if very contentious) roles in defining field methodology and in shaping archaeological practice and collecting activity in Egypt and Palestine in particular, Petrie was said to have donated his own head to the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) in London. Indeed, with some investigation (see Simon Chaplin’s contribution to Ucko 1998; Silberman 1999), it became clear that upon his death in 1942 in Jerusalem, Petrie’s body was buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion, and his head returned to England with the express purpose of processing it in order to add his skull to the teaching and research assemblages at the RCS.* But, what is critical for my purposes is that the head was never processed as per Petrie’s wishes.** Despite documented consent from Petrie for the use of his skull in the RCS collections, such consent has never been abided by, and his full head still stands off-limits today in the RCS’s laboratories.

As the Brains curators and I were contemplating how we might include reference to the head in the exhibition, a British television company approached us about facilitating access to it for display on a TV show that was then under development. However, we had no direct authority over Petrie’s remains; and from my understanding of the TV show’s subject matter, there was no obvious need to televise the remains beyond attracting higher viewer numbers through sensationalistic exposition. They were seemingly going to be used as nothing more than a showpiece—a decorative bit of tinsel affixed to an otherwise unrelated account. Suddenly the whole idea of presenting the story felt problematic and offensive to me, as it now seemed impossible to communicate anything meaningful or thought-provoking about Petrie’s head without rendering it into a spectacle. For these reasons among others, we eventually abandoned our efforts to integrate reference to Petrie in Brains, and the TV show was denied access to his remains. So they were never (and have never been) made more widely visible.

But I do wonder about the impact of this invisibility.

There is a massive and ever-growing literature on the ethics of displaying human remains, and the RCS itself (primarily through its fascinating Hunterian Museum) has been at the heart of some key debates around what such display does and does not achieve. In Petrie’s instance there are several key complicating factors that have kept his head from being processed as per his wishes.**  The consequence of this has been that the important history behind its donation in terms of its relationship to Petrie’s own academic endeavors, to the intellectual frameworks that he invested himself in, to his commitment to teaching and learning and understanding human behaviour, has gone virtually untold. And, more than that, his head hasn’t been able to tell the stories that Petrie himself wanted it to be able to tell.

Typically the debate around the display of human remains hinges on the issue of consent: that ethically we should not publicly expose the bodies of individuals who have not given their permission for such exposure. Where consent exists (and even where it doesn’t), the debate often then moves on to the subject of sensationalism and the (in)appropriateness of subjecting these remains to ogling and commodification by others. Institutions that have human body parts on exhibit inevitably also have visitors who come specifically to stare at those parts (indeed, this is the starting point for the brilliant scholar & author Frances Larson’s forthcoming book on severed heads). But the counterargument is that moments of exposure can also be powerful and revolutionary, and that in enabling opportunities for people to critically see and experience things that otherwise they might not, we are simultaneously enabling opportunities for intellectual change.

It is this tension – between the spectacular and the inspiring, between the sensational and the expressive – that I am especially interested in. There is sufficient evidence now to suggest that the critically-engaged exhibition of human remains can be an important pedagogical and emotive experience (e.g., Brooks and Rumsey 2006:279-284). Similarly, as Larson elaborates on, human remains themselves are often part of larger economies of exchange and commodification that extend far beyond current exhibiting institutions and that implicate far more individuals.

I think there’s room, then, for more nuance around, and challenging exploration of, how we approach the ethics of the display of bodily remains. Certainly, in Petrie’s case, he wanted his skull to be handled and used. That skull is linked to significant moments in the development of archaeological and anthropological scholarship, and so has a pivotal role to play in telling those stories. The line between spectacle and critical revelation will always be ambiguous, but arguably it’s in that very uneasy space that real knowledge-making may come about. As the Wellcome Collection knows well (and the RCS too), the spectacle might pull us in, but the framing around it can offer a provocation that makes us stop and think. It will always have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but I worry about rigid situations and protocols that eliminate such teachable moments altogether.

Sometimes it’s important to be given the chance to look, and I do wonder if even that TV show might have provided Petrie’s head with a form of accessibility that had some real productivity to it. My clear-cut initial distaste for its display suddenly now seems itself problematic.


*For more information about the story of Petrie’s head please see “Flinders Petrie and the Curation of Heads”, in the forthcoming issue of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 38(3), 2013, co-written my myself and Debbie Challis, Audience Development Officer at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London.

**The reasons why Petrie’s wishes were never realised are complex, but include the fact that his head was shipped back to London under confused circumstances in the middle of wartime, likely arriving at the RCS when it was in a state of upheaval from wartime bombing damage and staffing changes. Nevertheless, some preliminary work was clearly done on the head, as testified to by an accession number that was discovered inside the cranium upon examination in the 1970s (see Chaplin’s appendix in Ucko 1998).


Brooks, M. M. & Rumsey, C. 2006. The body in the museum. In: Cassman, V., Odegaard, N. & Powell, J. (eds.) Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Lanham: Altamira Press. Pp. 261-289.

Sheppard, K. L. 2010. Flinders Petrie and eugenics at UCL. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 20: 16-29. Online at:

Silberman, N. A. 1999. Petrie’s head: Eugenics and Near Eastern Archaeology. In: Kehoe, A. B. & Emmerichs, M. B. (eds.) Assembling the Past: Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Pp. 69-79.

Ucko, P. J. 1998. The biography of a collection: The Sir Flinders Petrie Palestinian Collection and the role of university museums. Museum Management and Curatorship 17: 351-399.


Sara Perry is the Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

Sara Perry

Sara Perry is Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye ( and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

4 thoughts on “The travels of a head

  1. This is a very interesting story, and bring immediately to mind the story of physical anthropologist and Sasquatch believer Grover Krantz whose skeleton now resides, with those of three of his dogs, in the Smithsonian. And that is after being processed through the ‘body farm’ at UofTennessee.

  2. Display of American Indian remains is something that is just not done by any reputable institution in the U.S. at this point. Having grown up in an American Indian community, it would feel very much like a personal affront to me. Indians aren’t artifacts. But I have to say that I have visited two museums in the U.S. in which non-Indian skeletal remains were on display—in the context of “headhunting” in both cases—and felt pretty uncomfortable then, as well. Perhaps my reaction had something to do with me being conditioned from the earliest age to look at display of human remains in a certain light.

  3. Fascinating about Flinders Petrie’s head. I suppose it’s not his fault that he didn’t anticipate the change in attitude. And re:Matthew Bradley, I feel a little uncomfortable around human remains too. I live in Oxford, and for me the most fascinating objects in the famous Pitt Rivers shrunken head cabinet are not the human shrunken heads, but the ones of sloths – believed to be intermediate between humans and the people of the sky world, and therefore worthy of head-shrinking. I think the museum could retain the weirdness and wonder of the practice without the human remains element.

    Saw this bit in the blurb of Larson’s book:

    it was actually Western collectors who drove the head-hunting epidemics of the 19th century

    This would need some serious evidence behind it for it to stand up. Headhunting, certainly in southeast Asia, is an ancient practice – words for ‘headhunting’ (*kayaw) and ‘trophy’ (*taban) can be reconstructed to proto-Austronesian. It wasn’t inspired primarily by Europeans, and collectors seem to have had little say in headhunting expeditions.

    That isn’t to say that European powers didn’t fund or inspire wars and battles. For instance, in the late-nineteenth century, the Dutch provided ships and weapons to the Raja of Adonara (in the Solor archipelago, Indonesia) to use in fighting Kalikur, a neighbouring power, and they also provided several hundred meo, warriors from Amfoan, Timor, for the same use. The meo saw the battles as opportunities for advancement, and cut off hundreds of heads to take home. There was an investigation by the Dutch government, the practice of using Indonesian auxiliaries in this way was stopped, and as far as I’m aware, none of the Kalikur heads were put in European collections (although I might be wrong).

    I don’t think European skull-collecting was behind any headhunting expeditions. That isn’t to say that collectors didn’t take the opportunity to collect heads when it presented itself, but that’s really not the same thing.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Matthew: I completely agree, and I think your point about being ‘conditioned’ is an important one, because I’m a Canadian living in the UK and I’ve found over here that it is often (but not always) those with backgrounds, schooling, and professional experience in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. that tend to look at these issues in a more critical fashion. The context, the personal connection that one has with the subject matter, the historical precedents that have been set, the legacies of human rights and privileges that one has (or has not) experienced or been exposed to, all make a difference to grappling with the topic.

    A.J.: I can’t speak on behalf of Larson, but her book is still in the development phase and I can say for sure that she is a brilliant and inspiring scholar. She has a long and deep history with the Pitt Rivers Museum; her work on Henry Wellcome is fantastic; and she’s profoundly affected my ways of thinking. So I have no doubt that her forthcoming book will be just as rigorous and meaningful.

    ehpem: Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been looking around for other examples of this sort (i.e., personalised and documented donations to specific museological collections – not to von Hagens’ Body Worlds), so I do appreciate it.

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