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'A Head in a Box': John Oliver takes on Aberdeen's stolen artefacts

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Comedian comments on University’s work to repatriate looted antiquities in recent TV programme.

By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

updated 6 October

Fans of British-American comic John Oliver are well acquainted with his acerbic wit, which the Birmingham-born comedian has put to good use as a writer and actor on programmes such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

In the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, broadcast on 2 October, Oliver turned his sardonic commentary toward the issue of stolen art and artefacts in Western museums. About the 32 minute mark, Oliver highlighted the University of Aberdeen as an example of an institution wrestling with how to properly repatriate looted antiquities to their countries of origin.

'Take the University of Aberdeen in Scotland,’ he said. ‘It recently began reassessing objects in its collections and facing the grim realities of what it’s been holding on to.’

Oliver highlighted the case of a Hindu sadhu (religious ascetic) whose skull had been preserved in a box in the University’s special collections, along with a glass sphere the man had held for eight years in an attempt to secure a ‘beneficial afterlife.’

After a Channel 4 television programme uncovered the existence of the skull in November 2021, the University promised to begin discussions with a local Hindu temple about how best to deal with the man’s remains.

Around the same time, the University also pledged to organise conversations with indigenous groups on how to return the skulls of various tribal and minority groups which were grave-robbed by famed American naturalist John Audubon in the early-19th century. The skulls, which number nine in total, were brought to Aberdeen by an associate of Audubon, William McGillivray.

Oliver wryly commented on the absurdity of the situation, saying, ‘A head in a box is less something you’d expect to find at an academic institution than more in the basement of a f****** serial killer.’ He continued, saying, ‘And that’s emblematic of so much here. The fact that for so long, not only did no one see the significance of that object to that man, no one saw that man as significant, period.’

While Oliver praised the University for ‘taking this reckoning seriously’ and repatriating items such as the Benin Bronzes, he acknowledged that for many institutions, the reckoning must go further.

He said, ‘‘Look, the fact is that museums should be getting asked hard questions about every aspect of both their acquisition process and their collections as part of a long overdue conversation about where their items came from and whether anyone wants them back.’

‘There is so much we need to do to reckon with the harms both past and present of colonialism. But this should really be the easy part.’

The Gaudie reached out to the University for an update on the status of the stolen remains. Head of Museums and Special Collections Neil Curtis told The Gaudie that discussions relating to the return of the remains were ongoing, but a long negotiation process remained ahead.


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