December 22, 2009

Glasgow museum returns Maori heads

Posted at 12:38 pm in Similar cases

Some Maori Heads held by the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow have been returned after 150 years.

The Scotsman

Glasgow museum returns Maori heads after 150 years
Published Date: 06 December 2009
By Oliver Tree

SEVERED human heads kept at a Scottish museum have been returned to their native New Zealand after nearly 150 years in the archives.

Taken from the Maori tribesmen and transported to Scotland in the 19th century, the heads have been housed at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.

But last week they were repatriated to New Zealand’s Te Papa museum with full tribal honours, including a ritual crying and prayer ceremony.

The four severed heads – or toi moko – have remained unseen in the archives for at least 60 years.

The museum’s deputy director, Mungo Campbell, said that negotiations for the heads’ return had been taking place for five years: “We have had the heads since the 1800s, but have no idea how they came to be here. During the 19th century there was a straightforward trade in human remains between Maoris and private individuals or collectors, and plenty of museums collected these artefacts as curiosities.”

However, Campbell drew a distinction between the repatriation of human remains and other, culturally sensitive artefacts such as the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles.

“Human remains are very different, as they cannot be displayed. The process of returning human remains is almost part of everyday business of museums now. Society has recognised that this is the right thing to do.”

While it is not known for sure how the heads reached the Hunterian, it is believed that three of the heads were donated by Thomas Steel in 1886. Glasgow-born Steel was known to have a keen interest in natural history and was an ardent collector from an early age.

The heads, which are covered in ceremonial tattoos, are believed to have been preserved through a process of smoking and heat treatment.

Cut from the bodies of deceased ancestors, Maoris believe that they contain the spirits of their dead.

They will be returned to any surviving ancestors in New Zealand if they can be traced.

The Glasgow heads are one of five repatriations from museums and institutions in Wales, Scotland, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.

A spokesperson from National Museums Scotland said: “In the last three years we have completed a programme of repatriation in response to requests from Australia and New Zealand. In 2008 we repatriated skeletal material consisting of four Maori skulls and two associated mandibles to the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa and transferred four toi moko, tattooed Maori heads, from permanent loan (dating from 1999) to ownership. We also repatriated one skull to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in 2009.

“We have no further skeletal human remains from New Zealand or Australia in our collections and have no further requests for repatriation.”

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