Tattooed Maori Heads Return To New Zealand From Aberdeen Museum

By Graham Spicer | 29 January 2007
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a photograph a man standing next to a series of grey boxes

Kau Matau (elder) Ku Ku Pa from Te Papa receiving the toi moko from the museum. © John McKenzie McIntosh, University Of Aberdeen

A museum’s collection of tattooed Maori heads is returning to its ancestral home, more than 180 years after being taken from New Zealand.

The nine tattooed heads, or toi moko, had been held in the University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum since the 1820s and were handed over to staff from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa on January 29 2007.

Te Papa Museum will now care for the toi moko in accordance with advice from Maori elders, and museum staff will be able to research the heads’ history.

“Te Papa is very grateful to Marischal College staff and the Court of the University for their agreement to repatriate these ancestral remains,” said Te Taru White, Kaihautu (Maori Co-Leader) of Te Papa.

“Their support will enable these ancestors to make the long journey home to New Zealand and to their people. This is a time for both sad reflection on the turbulent journeys these ancestors experienced and, at the same time, a cause for joy as they’re returned to their homeland.”

Shows a photograph of a man handing over a sacred artefact, which is wrapped in a cloth to three Native Canadians.

The Marischal Museum repatriated a sacred headdress to Canadian First Nation people in 2003. © John McKenzie McIntosh, University Of Aberdeen

Once returned to New Zealand the toi moko will be placed in Te Papa Museum's wahi tapu (consecrated sacred space) until research can confirm their tribe, or iwi, of origin. The Museum repatriates ancestral remains to iwi several times a year, a policy supported by the New Zealand government.

Neil Curtis, Senior Curator of the Marischal Museum, said: “I am very pleased that we have decided to repatriate the toi moko. Not only are they once again going to be treated as ancestors, they will also now be studied and researched in ways that were not possible if they had stayed in Aberdeen.”

Records show that the university had acquired toi moko as early as 1821, when one Lieutenant Reid of the Royal Navy presented a ‘Head of New Zealand warrior in good preservation’.

Facial tattooing was, and still is, an important element of traditional Maori culture, with complex designs indicating identity and status. After death the heads of revered ancestors were traditionally preserved by their families.

Shows a photograph of the outside of the Natural History Museum.

Repatriation of human remains has been the subject of legislation and the Natural History Museum returned indigenous remains to Tasmania in 2006. © NHM

Contact between Maori people and Europeans in the 19th century led to a growth in the trade of Maori treasures and toi moko. To satisfy this demand the heads of slaves were also tattooed and sold.

The decision to repatriate the remains was made in 2006 by the University Court after an expert panel unanimously approved the request to return them to New Zealand.

The University of Aberdeen previously repatriated a sacred headdress to the Kanai Nation/Blood Tribe in Canada in 2003.

Claims by indigenous people for the return of ancestral remains, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, led to new legislation being drawn up by the government in 2004. In 2005 nine national UK museums were given powers to move human remains out of their collections.

The Natural History Museum in London repatriated the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginal people to the Australian Government in November 2006.

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