Inishbofin is a small island on the west coast of Ireland. It has a population of less than 200. In the early 1890s the islanders were part of an ethnographic study by Charles R. Browne. Cranial size was believed to indicate anything from personality type or intellectual capacity to placement on a racist evolutionary scale. Vail’s great-great grandfather’s head was measured as part of Browne’s study and his profile photo appears as a specimen in the 1893 publication. Famed anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon went a step further by stealing skulls from the island’s cemetery.
One hundred years later filmmaker and NYU anthropologist Pegi Vail, an adoptee, arrived on the island to meet her biological family for the first time. Vail later found herself part of a campaign to repatriate the skulls, her own ancestors that had been stolen by the ethnologists over a century earlier. Vail works with islander Marie Coyne and Irish anthropologist Ciarán Walsh after he tells of an unpublished diary of Haddon where he admits to stealing 13 skulls from the island’s cemetery in total darkness.
A verité essay film narrated by Vail and told through the lived experience of her family, THEY MEASURED OUR HEADS explores the fraught history of the discipline of anthropology and the movement to decolonise institutions by repatriating stolen human remains, material goods, and visual archives.
The film is an exploration of separation and reunification, colonialism and repatriation, identity and culture. The first place Vail encountered on Inishbofin was the cemetery. Both she and Haddon were in the same place, 100 years apart, observing the dead and their connections to them. His mission was to steal and hers is to help return them home.
Read more in The Guardian.