August 13, 2006

Protecting New Zealand’s cultural heritage

Posted at 6:56 pm in Similar cases

More details on the move by the New Zealand government to limit the export of cultural artefacts from their country.

Gisborne Herald (New Zealand)

Treasures lost
by Kristine Walsh & NZPA
Saturday, 12 August, 2006

VISITORS to overseas museums can continue to enjoy the gleam of greenstone patu (clubs), the richness of totara carvings and the intricacy of woven cloaks, but those collections are unlikely to get any bigger. The New Zealand government last week passed a law that will make it harder for overseas collectors to get hold of Maori artefacts.

The British Museum alone holds more than 3000 Maori items and, according to Tairawhiti Museum researcher Jody Wyllie many of them — including a waka huia (treasure box) and carved portions of a meeting house — are “of particular interest” to Tairawhiti iwi.

“And that is just at one institution,” Wyllie said. “We really have no idea how many of our taonga are spread around the world.”

Even if they were identified those items are, for now at least, likely to stay off shore.

The newly-approved Protected Objects Amendment Bill will set up a register of precious objects that cannot be removed from New Zealand. However, the bill is not retrospective so cannot be used to seek the return of the thousands of national treasures already spirited overseas.

For Paul Tapsell, Maori director at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, it was a case of the horse having already bolted. “Something like this (bill) 50 to 100 years ago would have been good,” he said. “It’s now too little and too late.”

He doubted that stiffer penalties would dampen the enthusiasm of traffickers eager to cash in on booming international demand for Maori taonga.

Recent history shows that, when Maori artefacts held overseas occasionally became available, the asking price was often too high for New Zealand museums.

Last month, for example, a carving from a Te Arawa meeting house, Hinemihi, exported more than 100 years ago, was put up for sale by its Paris-based owner with an asking price of NZ$3.3million — a price so high that Te Papa Tongarewa: The Museum of New Zealand was effectively knocked out of the bidding.

During last week’s debate in Parliament, Associate Arts Minister Mahara Okeroa told MPs the bill was being introduced to help deal with the increasing international problem of culture being a “sought-after commodity”.

Objects listed on the register could be subject to claims for recovery through conventions if illegally exported, he said.

The bill — which becomes law on November 1 — will also make less expensive and onerous the process for claiming ownership of heritage objects through the Maori Land Court. And it will increase the penalties for illicitly exporting or destroying such objects.

During a visit to Gisborne, however, Auckland dealer Dunbar Sloane said the prickly issue of Maori artefacts was already being addressed by his industry.

“With many of those sorts of items it is nearly impossible to identify their origins but it was already the case that anything pre-1920 had to remain in the country,” he told The Guide.

In the past, it was tempting for some unscrupulous sellers to smuggle pieces out of the country, Sloane added. Today, though, reputable auction houses readily found buyers on the domestic market.

He had 20-to-30 “very wealthy clients” who were very interested in such artefacts, but they aren’t the only ones. Also interested are people like Jody Wyllie who, as well as working for the museum, acts as researcher/negotiator for some local iwi.

They’re not interested in paying top dollar for something pretty for the mantlepiece in the den, however. They want ownership of artefacts created by their ancestors returned to them. End of story.

Case in point is the ongoing tussle over the carved wharenui Te Hau ki Turanga, one of Te Papa’s star Maori attractions, which was acquired from Poverty Bay iwi Rongowhakaaata via means the Crown admits breached the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

That admission came at the end of 2004, at which time iwi representatives asserted their commitment to winning legal title of the wharenui and pursuing a compensation claim with the Government, while Te Papa insisted it was keen to retain guardianship of the 165-year-old whare.

Negotiations, The Guide has been told, continue, and it was hoped a resolution would not be too far away.

Meanwhile, Wyllie said he had taken steps towards the establishment of a tribal taonga database that will help local Maori identify where in the country — or the world — the treasures of their past are held.

Already he had gathered together the records of half a dozen New Zealand institutions that held artefacts “pertaining to the Tairawhiti area”.

A tight budget meant the resources the museum could put into the project were limited, Wyllie said, going on to mutter dark things about the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust, which he believed held the biggest collection in the country of Maori artefacts from the East Coast.

“But I certainly envisage that it will continue,” he said, “if not through the museum, then through tribes from around the region who will do their own investigations.”

THE issue of repatriating taonga from overseas institutions does not apply only to objects . . . . there are also koiwi tangata (Maori human remains) held in museums all over the world.

Koiwi tangata are not included in the new Protected Objects Amendment Bill — it being considered culturally inappropriate to lump human remains in with objects — but it is still becoming easier for these, too, to be returned home.

The introduction of the United Kingdom’s Human Tissue Act (2004), for example, last month cleared that way for the preserved heads of three Maori warriors to be returned to New Zealand.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, however, museums in New Zealand can be tight-lipped about what koiwi they have.

And even if the remains are repatriated to their regions of origin, respect to that sensi-tivity means the process is often carried out quietly.

In fact, the last repatriation to this region that The Guide is aware of was in late 1999 when Te Papa Tongarewa: The Museum of New Zealand returned 32 koiwi tangata to Tairawhiti.

Te Papa repatriation project leader Cather-ine Nesus said the remains were primarily handled by members of the Ngati Konohi iwi, “but they worked with others”.

“This repatriation was focused on returning those koiwi that Te Papa held that were from the Tairawhiti region,” she said.

And she admitted that identifying where koiwi came from was daunting.

“We’re doing it very quietly,” she said after a similar repatriation in Manawatu.

“When we feel confident we can say to iwi ‘we think these tupuna are from your region’, then we talk with them.”

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