“Even when we were still part of Warrington Borough Council, we acknowledged that we had the Toi moko,” says Janice Hayes, the museum manager who, having first encountered the mummified head of a South Sea island chief when she began working there in 1977, has finally returned the sacred exhibit to curators who crossed the world to collect it.
“If you think about it, from the 1970s onwards, when the idea of the Commonwealth of Nations began, in America they were getting rid of segregation. There was this whole movement for indigenous people to reassert their own cultures.
© Culture Warrington
“The museum world obviously was very conscious of that, and got caught up in the middle of it.
“By the 1980s, like a lot of museum people, we became conscious that the world had moved on and the interpretation of some of these galleries could be perceived as racist or insensitive. So the first thing we did was to take the Toi moko off show."
Warrington’s museum has a surprising, astonishingly far-dating history. Founded by the council in 1848 – it was only predated by museums in Sunderland and Leicester, formed more speedily due to being in boroughs – its natural history collection is one of the country’s finest. And curators had always been aware of the Polynesian head.
“A lot of places like ours thought ‘well, this is rather an oddity, it doesn’t need to be on public show,'" reflects Hayes. "And if you’re never going to put it back on show, having it sitting in a cardboard box in a storeroom far away from its native land isn’t the most respectful thing to do.”
Hayes and her conscientious colleagues had been “kind of expecting” a visit from Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museums body in the south island, ever since 2008, when they first made contact about a head given to the Warrington Natural History Society by Sir Richard Brooke in 1843.
“Te Papa don’t fudge this issue,” she says. “These heads were offered by the native chiefs who realised that they could trade them for guns.
© Culture Warrington
“That’s the kind of odd thing about it – if it was your ancestor you respected it, but if it was the enemy’s and you gave it away you were showing an extreme form of disrespect.
“As far as we can establish it doesn’t look as if Sir Richard Brooke ever went back to New Zealand himself and brought it back.
“A lot of these were brought back by sea captains. Warrington is very close to the port of Liverpool, so it’s quite likely to have been brought in from there.
“It’s a bit like people who say, ‘I’m interested in Roman antiquities’, and acquire a roman statue to put in their stately home.
“A lot of people in those days were interested in phrenology – they were studying skulls and everything else. It’s quite likely that that was his interest.
“But that’s one of the little enigmas that maybe we will solve in the future.”
The New Zealand museums group was set up during the late 1990s.
“Their remit was to find out where all the Maori human and skeletal remains were, and eventually to arrange their repatriation.
“One of their specific aims is to interpret Maori culture, and that includes bringing these remains back to their ancestral home.
“They started out with some of the museums who perhaps had very large collections. They had difficulty in one or two countries where there was some resistance to the idea of repatriating.
“But we understand on spiritual grounds it’s not correct for it to remain outside its culture and on ethical grounds it should have returned it home.”
Packed in discreet cases and flown from Gatwick, the heads’ journey home is the culmination of a poetically uncanny series of links between Warrington and the warriors’ homeland.
One of the tutors at Warrington’s first university, during the 1770s, sailed from New Zealand with Captain Cook, sharing his knowledge upon returning. And the ceremony to hand the head over came on the same weekend New Zealand played Samoa at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium as part of the current Rugby League World Cup.
“It’s a quirk of fate,” believes Hayes.
“A Maori head arriving in Warrington by a circuitous route in the early 1840s, and now the World Cup providing the ideal opportunity to give it a due ceremony and ensure that it’s given a lot of respect.
“One of the early delegates that I met was one of the first Samoans on the board of Auckland Museum.
“When we saw his reaction to the head, it was like the heavens were aligned.
“In his view, it was meant to be that this match was here and the warrior would go home.
“When you work in the museum world you know what the Code of Ethics is, but when you meet someone like that – and he’s not even a Maori, although he was born when Samoa was still part of New Zealand, and he lives in New Zealand – it stops being just a museum object that you see on a shelf. You really realise its significance.
“We got quite a number of emails in from Maoris all living in this country, saying how pleased they were. We’re pleased it was here, but also that the right thing has been done.”
The deputy New Zealand High Commissioner and delegates from the World Cup were among the dignitaries in attendance at the ceremony at the Grade I-listed town hall, accompanying demonstrations of Maori cultural traditions, explanations of dances and a public seminar during a Friday which is unlikely to be forgotten in this part of Cheshire.
“Once it’s returned, in about a fortnight’s time, they will have a ceremony at their end,” says Hayes, who is hoping a curator working on the museum’s new galleries will visit New Zealand.
“Over there they have a sort of repository, initially, where these go.
“They don’t do DNA analysis or anything intrusive like that, they don’t need to. The patterns on the faces are so distinctive that in some cases they can identify which family group they came from.
“In some cases it may remain in the repository, in other cases it could be returned for a burial or whatever ceremony the family think is appropriate, really. That’s an ongoing process for them.
“It takes a while for them to work their way through all of these. They have their agenda which is to get them all back home, where they should be.”
- The Cabinet of Curiosities galleries will open at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery in January 2014. Visit the museum's blog for more.
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