Repatriation & The Legacy of Historic Collections

May 19 2016

Sian Brown, Head of Collections, talks about her experience of a recent repatriation ceremony at Weston Park and the legacy of historic collections for museums today: 

This week I had the honour of attending a special event to mark the repatriation of a Māori or Moriori skull from Museums Sheffield’s collection. The ceremony marked the next phase in the long journey which will see these ancestral remains finally return home to find a resting place in New Zealand.

Like museums across the UK, Sheffield’s collections are built on foundations established by our Victorian predecessors. Nearly 200 years ago the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society began a remarkable collection of artefacts that would go on to inspire, educate and fascinate visitors to Weston Park Museum for generations. Over the years, this collection has grown in number and importantly our understanding of those items and their relationship to both the city and to the wider world continues to develop.

The legacy of historic collections is a key focus of museums today. Nowadays we have a very different approach to collecting to museums of 150 or even 50 years ago. Today, we’re governed by rigorous acquisition policies and ethical guidelines and work continuously to evaluate and understand the material in our care. A significant part of that work is detailed research to find out more about the history and context of these collections. Sometimes this research can enable us to interpret them more effectively, and sometimes it can enable us to make informed choices about the future of these items, as it has done in this case.

After undertaking an audit of the collection in 2013 we discovered that Museums Sheffield had a skull in the collection that was potentially of Māori origin, and therefore a possible candidate for repatriation. First of all however, we needed to make sure that we knew as much about the skull as possible. The historic records can sometimes be vague but the information we had said that the skull had been given to the Sheffield Museum in 1929 after being dug up in New Zealand and it was described as a “Māori skull”. After researching the donor we couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that the skull was definitely of Māori origin, so we contacted Human Osteology experts at the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield who suggested they use their specialist CranID statistical software to analyse the skull and ascertain where it had originally come from.

Presentation of books at Te Papa repatriation ceremonyAfter months of research the results were finally returned to us in June 2014 and concluded that there was a 96% likelihood that the skull was of Māori or Moriori origin, the term Moriori referring to those ancestral Polynesians who settled the Chatham Islands, part of New Zealand since 1842. Armed with this new information we got in contact with The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) to explore options for repatriation and were pleased to hear that they would be keen to repatriate the skull when representatives from Te Papa were next in Europe.

Over the past 25 years museums have participated in programmes of repatriation of remains taken from their homelands, with a formal scheme set up by Te Papa in 2003. Te Papa has returned over 400 Māori and Moriori ancestors to New Zealand, working with institutions including National Museum Wales, National Museums Scotland, and shortly the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

After three years of research and preparation, the official repatriation ceremony took place at Weston Park Museum this week, led by Te Herekiekie Herewini, Repatriation Manager at Te Papa and Ms Hema Temara, Te Papa’s Māori Cultural Practice Adviser, and attended by representatives of Museums Sheffield, the High Sherriff of South Yorkshire Dr Julie MacDonald and Councillor Mike Drabble.

The event opened with the playing of a Pütatara or conch trumpet which was followed by chants, greetings and songs including the Waiata tangi, a traditional lament which acknowledges the passing of a Māori ancestor. The formal handover was accompanied by speeches from Councillor Drabble, Museums Sheffield’s Chief Executive Kim Streets and from the representatives from Te Papa, who graciously thanked the Museum for caring for their ancestor in the years they were with us.

Recognising both the shadow of those past events that brought the remains to our shores and the spirit of collaboration that will see them return home, the ceremony was a unique and moving experience and one that I’m sure will stay with me for many years to come.



Top - Delegates from The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and representatives from the city. Image © Museums Sheffield 
Right - Ms Hema Temara, Te Papa’s Maori cultural practice adviser, presents Museums Sheffield's Chief Executive, Kim Streets with a gift from New Zealand during the ceremony.



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