The evolution of museums – returning what has been taken

Stolen, exchanged at low prices or misappropriated, the “great” European museums are full of objects brought from distant seas. With the tides changing now, how do the original Guardians go about bringing their treasures home?

Maui Solomon and Te Arikirangi Mamaku lead the delegation to Te Papa’s marae, carrying the karāpuna (ancestors), July 2022.
Photo: your daddy

Our national museum, Te Papa, is expected to make a big announcement soon regarding a major repatriation of Vienna’s Natural History Museum.

It concludes an iwi and hapū Māori campaign waged since the end of World War II.

It’s all part of a project to search for Maori and Moriori remains in museums and private collections around the world, identify their iwi and bring them back. Since its debut in 2003, between 700 and 800 bone remains and tā moko have been returned.

Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside is the acting head of Te Papa’s repatriation and spoke with The detail of Copenhagen about his work tracking down these objects.

“Kiwis are on the move,” he says. “They end up in collection rooms, guided tours, various interesting places where sensitive cultural objects are kept. So they usually advise us: “we have discovered ancestral remains in this particular museum”.

“But our usual process is where we contact various institutions and do a formal survey of their collection to see if they have any human remains associated with Aotearoa in New Zealand and the Chatham Rēkohu Islands.

“We also have a lot of networks among researchers and curators in different natural history museums around the world, so there’s usually an exchange of information that happens at that level around the identification of Maori and Moriori ancestry. ”

Museums are changing, with new policies on the return of objects of cultural significance. Germany and France are at the forefront of efforts to return former colonies their treasures. Great Britain, the greatest power of all – not so much.

There are tā moko in the British Museum but Mamaku-Ironside says of this particular claim: “we have a lot of work to do”.

“Technically we are still in negotiations with the British Museum…but they are resisting. They are quite astute in the way they handle these situations. We are hopeful. I believe that a ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ which just waiting to happen and sometimes you just have to wait for the right conditions.

“We have claims all over the place with a lot of other museums and so rather than expending energy which isn’t going to go very fast…we’ll come back to that. It’s a long game.”

An example of this is the claims he had with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, where investigations began in the 1990s but were not resolved until 2016.

“That particular claim needed a lot of things to change. They got a new manager… the new manager started a policy specifically around repatriation… whereas before it was literally head banging against a museum door in the hope that something will change.

“We are a patient people. But this project is not meant to last forever.”

Also on The detail we talk to the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Director of Collections and Research, David Reeves, about the Ancient Greek exhibit that’s going on, and how it fits with the new direction museums are taking given that ‘She is on loan from the British Museum – the institution that is dragging its feet when it comes to repatriation.

David Reeves stands in front of the Te Toki-a-Tāpiri waka on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

David Reeves, Director of Collections and Research at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, stands in front of the Te Toki-a-Tāpiri waka.
Photo: Bonnie Harrison

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