Further coverage of Aberdeen University’s decision to return nine Maori heads .
The Scotsman 
Wed 31 Jan 2007
No place like home
THEY are not really the kind of thing you’d want on your mantelpiece, but in their native land the toi moko are sacred, and now they’re going home. Earlier this week, nine preserved and tattooed heads of Maori warriors, acquired by Aberdeen University in the early 19th century, were ceremonially handed over to representatives from Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum.
Back home, they will be placed within a consecrated area of Te Papa (it means, roughly, “our place”), pending further research to confirm their iwi or tribe of origin. They are just the latest preserved Maori heads to be returned to New Zealand from Scotland over the past few years, museums in Perth and Glasgow having similarly agreed to the repatriation of toi moko from their collections, following agreement that it was appropriate that these venerated relics be returned to their native soil and culture.
Te Taru White, a co-director of Te Papa, has described as heartening the fact that so many museums and other institutions are agreeing to return home these ancestral remains, adding: “This is both a time for sad reflection on the turbulent journeys these ancestors experienced and, at the same time, a cause or joy as they are returned to their homeland.”
But is it a cause for joy for museum curators who see their collections dwindling, or in a more enlightened age, do we simply share in the Maoris’ satisfaction that their ancestors are, at long last, returning to their rightful resting place? How do museums decide whether or not requests for such restitution are justified – and will such a decision ever be made on that old chestnut of disputed acquisition and ownership, the Elgin Marbles?
For Neil Curtis, senior curator of Aberdeen University’s Marischal Museum, the departure of the nine smoked and tattooed heads, dating from the 1820s, may leave him with a gap in his collections but, he stresses, no regrets. “It’s a loss to some of our earliest collections, but you set that against the feeling that these are so obviously important to this other group of people, that the right place for them to go is back to New Zealand.” As part of the “memorandum of association” signed as part of the repatriation agreement, a scholar from New Zealand will come to Aberdeen to help document its remaining Maori collections. “So,” Curtis says, “we’ll actually end up knowing a lot more about the rest of the material that they’re not asking for. This has actually been quite exciting, and I now know so much more about our Maori collections than I ever did before.”
Referring to other recent restitutions of toi moko by museums in Perth and Glasgow, Curtis says that, while Glasgow may have followed that line because it involved human remains, “that’s not necessarily what we are saying. We believe there can be justification for human remains in a museum, but for the Maoris these ancestors are particularly important”.
In 2003, the Marischal Museum returned a sacred headdress to the Kainai Nation in Canada, so Curtis feels that they now have a clear idea of what to do in future instances of requests for restitution, “although that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll say yes”. But curators across the land, he reckons, needn’t lock up their artefacts at the first whisper of a visiting cultural delegation: “It’s still a very small proportion of items, and it shows just how important some things are to people, which from a museum point of view is a good thing. It shows that what we have matters to people.”
Through their return over the past ten years of items as diverse as Australian aboriginal remains, further toi moko, and the much-publicised Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt, Glasgow’s museums can claim to be pioneers in the field, with each request, according to John Lynch, convener of the city council’s culture and leisure services committee, being considered strictly according to its merits. “One of the big issues at the beginning was that we were accused by some other museums and authorities of setting a precedent,” says Lynch, “but our response to that was that the only precedent we’ve set is a precedent of process. That process can be duplicated in any event, but the criteria have to be applied separately for each individual request.”
In their most widely publicised repatriation, Glasgow agreed to return the Ghost Dance Shirt to the Lakota Sioux, after being approached by their representatives. “The evidence we had,” explains Lynch, “indicated that the shirt was a religious object specific to that tribe, and that it was taken from the body of a warrior.”
The Ghost Dance Shirt, thought to have been stripped from the body of a victim of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, was originally obtained by Glasgow museums in the early 1890s, when William F Cody – “Buffalo Bill” – brought his renowned Wild West Show to Glasgow. However, Glasgow decided not to accede to a similar request for the return of a waistcoat also acquired during the Wild West Show’s sojourn in the city, currently on display in Kelvingrove Museum. The waistcoat is thought to have belonged to Rain in the Face, a Hunkpapa Sioux warrior among those credited with killing General Custer at Little Bighorn. “There is no indication the waistcoat left Rain in the Face’s possession by anything other than legal means,” says Lynch. “In fact Rain in the Face was still alive 15 years after Glasgow museums got it.” Lynch was among those who gave evidence to the House of Commons committee on culture, which resulted in a recommendation that museums give due consideration to the claims of “originating communities”, but that a “strong presumption against disposal” should be the basis on which any claims are considered.
It’s not just the Marischal or Kelvingrove that have been granting the restitution of sacred objects to the peoples from which they were taken: last year the British Museum returned two Tasmanian cremation bundles to their culture of origin, which brings us to that old chestnut, the Elgin Marbles, the subject of long-standing demands for their return to Greece. However, a spokesman for the British Museum points out that, as confirmed by a High Court ruling on a claim for the return of four old master drawings which had been looted by the Nazis, the British Museum Act of 1963 prohibits the museum from returning any such material: “Although to be honest, that isn’t an argument that we tend to rely on, because we feel strongly that here in the museum you see the sculptures in a world context with other civilisations, and we feel that is something that’s very important.”
The same argument makes it unlikely the Lewis Chessmen, the beautifully wrought Viking artefacts found near Uig in the 19th century, will ever be permanently returned to the Hebridean island, though they have been loaned on occasion and 11 of the 93 pieces are now displayed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Mind you, if one were to take the restitution process to its logical conclusion, that berserker impatiently biting his shield amid the ranks of the 12th-century chessmen might much rather be back in his real homeland – Norway.
BENIN BRONZES AND IVORIES
Glasgow, which has a relatively small collection of these ritual items acquired by Britain during a punitive raid on the king of Benin in 1896, was approached by the late Bernie Grant MP about repatriating this colonial booty to neighbouring Nigeria. Glasgow declined, citing the collection’s educational importance but also expressing concern over security in Nigerian museums.
These Viking chess pieces, elaborately wrought in walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, were discovered near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. Now in the British Museum collections, bar 11 in the National Museums of Scotland, they have been returned to Scotland for temporary exhibitions but will remain based in London.
This beaded buckskin waistcoat is thought to have belonged to the renowned Hunkpapa Lakota warrior Rain In The Face, often credited with killing General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. After consideration of a request for repatriation – originally made by Rain In The Face’s granddaughter – Glasgow museums declined, as they regarded the waistcoat as having been acquired legitimately.
These preserved and tattooed heads of Maori warriors were acquired by museums during the 19th century, often brought back as curios by seamen or travellers. The New Zealand government is now supporting Maori bids to reclaim as many of these relics as possible.
The famous sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens were acquired by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, then bought by the British Museum in 1816. Despite continuing claims by Greece that they should be returned, the museum is prevented by law from doing so, and argues that they are best displayed in the London museum within a world context.
LAKOTA GHOST DANCE SHIRT
This Lakota Sioux religious artefact is thought to have been looted from the body of a victim of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, and found its way to Glasgow through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After being approached by representatives of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, Glasgow museums handed over the shirt in 1999.