Museums New Zealand

Birmingham university returns Maori remains found in storeroom

The repatriation is part of a drive by Te Papa to reclaim ancestral heads and skeletons

A delegation from New Zealand travelled to the UK in October to collect Maori remains from the University of Birmingham

A delegation from New Zealand travelled to the UK in October to collect Maori remains from the University of Birmingham. The toi moko (preserved head) and koiwi tangata (skeletal remains), which were found in the storeroom of the university’s medical college, are probably Victorian trophies that were donated and relegated to a box in the college’s store.

“We have no records about how these items came to be in storage at the university, but when they were uncovered we knew that we had to give them back,” says June Jones, the senior lecturer in biomedical ethics at the university. “They belong back with their own people, to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” she adds. Jones, who was behind the return of Native American remains to California in 2012, says she will “continue to work with Te Papa [New Zealand’s national museum] to help identify other medical schools and institutions in the UK that may have Maori human remains”.

The delegation also received a tattooed head of a chief from a museum in Guernsey that had been part of the museum's 19th-century collection. Two more institutions, in England and in Ireland, are expected to return Maori remains shortly.

New Zealand has stepped up its efforts to reclaim ancestral remains. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington has a special repatriation programme, which has successfully seen the return of more than 200 ancestral remains from 14 countries within the past two decades. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which staged a photography show on the contemporary practice of Maori tattoo art in 2008-09, handed over items this April and ten French institutions, including Paris's Musée Quai Branly, repatriated items in 2012.

Experts estimate that around 800 Maori remains were traded for European goods in the 18th and 19th centuries, and although the practice was banned by the government in 1831, it continued for another century. The delegation believes that around 400 items are still held within UK collections.

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