|From The New Zealanders Illustrated - George Angas - 1847- this image sourced form Te Ara, here. |
Auckland City Library digitsiation of The New Zealanders Illustrated - here
Tukuna mai he kapunga oneone ki a au hei tangi
Send me a handful of soil so I may weep over itToi moko
The vexed issue of when, or under what conditions, a national or universal museum can or should return artifacts to their origin, comes into fore this morning with the news that the French Parliament has approved the return of more than a dozen toi moko, or preserved Maori heads, to New Zealand.
The story goes back to 2007 when the Rouen Natural History Museum decided to repatriate a head in its collection. It was blocked by the French Ministry of Culture, and it has taken until now to get the legislative framework and the cross party support to create a national policy which will allow all toi moko in French collections to be repatriated.
Note - repatriated does not necessarily mean reunited with the subjects whanau [family]. Given the complex histories of war, conquest, and subsequent trading practices, there are huge issues within Maoridom here in New Zealand around identifying the point of origin of a toi moko, and who in turn has the responsibility of looking after the head, and accepting it for burial.
In recent times, Museums are the last candidates for any long term care and custodianship of toi moko. Indeed in many instances local Maori groups - especially hapu [sub-tribe] consider any storage of human remains not just an insensitivity; it creates a condition whereby people won't go to the Museum because it is seen as a cemetery, and the human remains, and by extension the whole building, tapu.
That said, many New Zealand museums have very sensitive protocols around handling human remains, including policies which actively seek repatriation and de-accession. See for example, Auckland Museum, here.
Moreover, in regard to toi moko in particular, Te Papa, the NZ National Museum, act as negotiators and conduits to the eventual homecoming and burial of toi moko. See here for more on this from Te Papa.
So, one more step in the long chain of discourse and practicalities around a topic which can only be approached with respect.
As a measure of the importance of this issue here in New Zealand this morning, Te Papa, [Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa] acting chief executive Michelle Hippolite spoke on Radio NZ National Morning Report