(Severed human heads, Vanderbilt Mansion. Photo/courtesy of Rachel Figueroa-Levin)

Opinion: A rich collector, a museum, and severed Peruvian heads

Last weekend, I attended a wedding at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island. It’s a gorgeous venue that used to be one of the summer homes of the Vanderbilt family. Inside the mansion, there are a number of things that belonged to the family like art, taxidermy (there’s a polar bear for example), antique cars, and severed human heads.

Severed human heads? Yes. Severed human heads. During the post ceremony cocktail hour, I (sober due to being pregnant) decided to wander around the museum and show my daughter the “stuffed” animals. My daughter walked behind me and asked me about the display she had found. I expected to turn around and read the name of a species on the card. Instead I turned around and read “shrunken heads.”

So here I am, an almost three year old in one hand, a cocktail weenie in the other, staring at a couple of severed heads. They were black, and shriveled, and they belonged to a couple of Peruvians. More specifically they belonged to the Jivaro tribe- or as the card said “the Jivaro Indians” (apparently the Vanderbilts didn’t get the memo that Columbus didn’t actually land in India). The card also explained their heads were shrunk by being severed at the base of the neck, scraped out and the eyes and mouth sewn shut.

This was all on the card.

So what do I tell my daughter? A rich white guy from a long time ago liked to collect taxidermy and felt that our Peruvian brethren were on the same level as the stuffed bird in the next display? Do I explain the genocide that occurred in the “new world” at the hands of the “old world” invaders?

Picture of severed head, display about Jivaro Indian tribe, Peru, at the Vanderbilt Museum, Long Island, NY.  Photo/Rachel Figueroa-Levin

Picture of severed head, display about Jivaro Indian tribe, Peru, at the Vanderbilt Museum, Long Island, NY. Photo/Rachel Figueroa-Levin

Even though Vanderbilt or white “conquistadores” didn’t shrink these heads -the Jivaro did -it’s still not right to display them.  Just because head severing and shrinking was done by indigenous Peruvians to themselves doesn’t give anyone the right to display the heads of murdered people. (By the way, the Jivaro Indians are the only tribe to have successfully staged a revolt against the Spanish invaders. Wepa! )

But back to the heads in the glass case – white people kill other white people all the time, yet my living room doesn’t have a blonde lady’s head as an ode to the quaint little uncivilized Europeans who can’t figure out how not to kill each other.

Do I tell her that it’s incredibly disrespectful to display body parts of people who probably didn’t consent to being killed?

You want to know what has made me nauseous during this pregnancy? Avocados, cilantro, and severed heads. I have to add severed heads to the list. Thanks, Vanderbilt family.

Had I been not pregnant and drinking, I might have marched over to the museum worker and demanded that the heads be repatriated to Peru. These heads should be repatriated to Peru. That’s where they belong. They should be buried (or whatever) in a manner that’s in line with the tribe they belong to.

Humans aren’t collectors items. And let’s face it, this museum probably wouldn’t have treated the head of a white guy the same way- on display – in between a wall of birds and an antique pistol.

So what did I tell my daughter? Since she’s so young I told her that very old dolls. She moved on quickly as stuffed animals are far more interesting than severed human heads to someone her age.

Happy Columbus Day.

Opinion: A rich collector, a museum, and severed Peruvian heads  rachel levin figueroa nbc parenting family NBC Latino News

Rachel Figueroa-Levin is a soapmaker, cofounder and educator at Urban Babywearing, a hyperlocal Inwood blogger and organizer, a political/life/religion/parenting satirist, and all around trouble maker.  She is also the creator of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish-speaking alter ego @elbloombito.  You can reach her via twitter @Jewyorican

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