Filmmaker Pegi Vail, an American adoptee and anthropologist, discovers her relatives on Inishbofin, a small Irish island. She later learns that 13 ancestral skulls were stolen from Inishbofin’s cemetery by a well-known British colonial anthropologist, locked away in the vaults of Trinity College Dublin for over a century. Vail finds herself part of an historic campaign begun by islander Marie Coyne to return the skulls to their rightful place on the island. Snatched under the cloak of darkness, will the skulls ever return home?

In the 1890s, islanders were photographed, measured, and treated as specimens, including Vail’s great-great grandfather James Joyce as part of an ethnographic study. Cranial size was believed to indicate anything from personality type or intellectual ability to placement on a racist evolutionary scale. Through the lived history of Vail’s cousins and colleagues, THEY MEASURED OUR HEADS explores the fraught history of anthropology and the global movement to decolonize institutions by returning stolen human remains and reconsidering visual archives. Vail’s personal story opens a window into larger narratives of separation and reunification, colonialism and repatriation, identity and culture.

Read more in The Guardian.

Color Image: Director Pegi Vail, St. Colman’s Cemetery, Inishbofin 1995
B&W Insert: Anthropometry on Inishbofin, 1892. C. Trinity College Dublin

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