Stolen, traded for cheap or otherwise taken, the ‘great’ European museums are replete with items brought from far flung seas. With the tides now changing, how do the original caretakers go about bringing their treasures home?

Our national museum, Te Papa, is set to make a big announcement soon on a major repatriation from the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

It concludes a campaign iwi and hapū Māori have been running since the end of World War II. 

It’s all part of a project to search museums and private collections around the world for Māori and Moriori remains, identify their iwi, and bring them back. Since it began in 2003, between 700 and 800 skeletal remains and tā moko have been returned. 

Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside is Te Papa’s acting head of repatriation and spoke to The Detail from Copenhagen about his job tracking down these objects. 

“Kiwis get around,” he says. “They end up in collection rooms, back of house tours, various interesting places where sensitive cultural objects are held. So they usually advise us, ‘we came across some ancestral remains at this particular museum’. 

“But our usual process is one where we reach out to various institutions and we make a formal inquiry into their collection to see if they have any human remains that are associated with Aotearoa New Zealand and the Chatham Islands Rēkohu. 

“We also have quite a lot of networks among researchers and curators around the various natural history museums around the world, so there’s usually some exchange of information that occurs at that level around identifying Māori and Moriori ancestors.” 

Museums are changing, with new policies on returning culturally significant items. Germany and France are at the forefront of efforts to give former colonies their treasures back. Britain, the biggest power of all, not so much. 

There are tā moko at the British Museum but Mamaku-Ironside says on that particular claim: “We’ve got a lot of work to do”. 

“We’re still technically in negotiations with the British Museum…but they are resistant. They are quite crafty with how they manage these situations. One does remain hopeful. I believe a ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ just waiting to happen and sometimes you just need to wait for the right conditions. 

“We’ve got claims happening all over the place with a lot of other museums and so rather than spend energy that’s not going to be moving very fast…we’ll come back to them. It’s a long game.” 

An example of that is the claims it had with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in the US, where inquiries started in the 1990s but weren’t resolved until 2016.  

“That particular claim needed a lot of things to change. They got a new director…the new director initiated a policy specifically around repatriation… whereas before it was literally banging your head against a museum door hoping for something to change.

“We’re a patient people. But this project isn’t supposed to last forever.”   

Also on The Detail we speak to the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s director of collections and research, David Reeves, about the Ancient Greeks exhibition which is on now, and how that tallies with the new direction museums are taking given it’s on loan from the British Museum – the institution dragging its feet when it comes to repatriation. 

David Reeves, the director of collections and research at Auckland War Memorial Museum, stands in front of Te Toki-a-Tāpiri waka. Photo: Bonnie Harrison

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