January 24, 2007

New Zealand’s inaction on restitution of non-human remains

Posted at 12:41 pm in Similar cases

Parties in New Zealand trying to retrieve Taonga artefacts museums have been told the the government has no official policy on this issue if the items in question do not involve human remains.

Stuff (New Zealand)

No policy on return of taonga, tribunal told
NZPA | Tuesday, 23 January 2007

There is no explicit Government policy to support the repatriation of taonga, the Waitangi Tribunal was told today.

“The Ministry of Culture and Heritage has not prepared a policy document on repatriation of taonga to New Zealand and there is not one under development,” the ministry’s deputy chief executive Jane Kominik said.

She told the tribunal that the Government had made Te Papa its agent to seek return of koiwi – human remains – but there was no similar process for other taonga, such as artefacts of stone, wood or textiles.

Ms Kominik told Matahuku Mahuika, a lawyer for Ngati Porou in the Wai 262 claim, the priority given to human remains was a response to concerns in the Maori community about ancestors remains being held for display.

Mr Mahuika pressed Ms Kominik on the extent to which the Government was concerned that repatriation of other taonga held by overseas museums or collectors might affect efforts to recover human remains, such as dried heads.

But he also drew out concerns that if the Government insisted on the return of artefacts which were not human remains, there could be a reaction in terms of other countries seeking to claw back items in New Zealand’s museums and libraries.

Ms Kominik said some world-class collections in NZ could be vulnerable, such as one of the world’s best collections of books by Alexandre Dumas in an Auckland library.

Mr Mahuika argued that there was little evidence of Ngati Porou being heavily represented in terms of the human remains held by overseas museums, while it did have large numbers of other taonga in overseas collections.

He questioned why the Government or its agent was not negotiating with museums overseas to have the status of taonga changed so that even if they remained in the custody of foreign collectors, their ownership by specific iwi was formally acknowledged.

She said there was no crown policy for seeking ownership and agreed there were concerns over the “precedent effect” of seeking repatriation.

Disputes over the ownership of artefacts – such as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum – were a feature of the museum business, she said.

But the return of human remains had largely taken place in the context of a change of attitude in some European museums on that specific issue, and even then, museums in France and the United States had not rushed to return human remains.

The WAI 262 claim before the tribunal seeks exclusive and comprehensive rights to indigenous flora and fauna as well as all Maori cultural knowledge, customs and practices.

The 16-year-old Treaty of Waitangi claim was initially brought by six iwi, and hearings of claimants’ submissions were completed last year.

Crown submissions now under way are due to finish on January 31, with closing submissions by both sides to be presented between March 19 and 30.

The head of the tribunal panel, Chief Judge Joe Williams has said the main thrust of the Wai 262 is about measuring current Crown policy against known Treaty standards.

Another lawyer at today’s hearing, Leo Watson, representing Ngati Wai, Ngati Kuri and Ngati Rarawa, was told by Ms Kominik that no written records were made of the discussions of a Maori reference group set up to advise on the review of the Antiquities Act, including its views on a proposal for establishment of a bicultural cultural heritage council.

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