Repatriation of Māori/Moriori ancestral human remains

Human remains believed to be of Māori/Moriori ancestral origins have been repatriated following an agreement by the Board of Governors of the Wellcome Trust to a request by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa).

The decision was taken in the context of our policy on human remains, which sets out our approach to the care of all human remains in our collections and draws on guidance issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The items, acquired as part of the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, comprise two Toi moko (preserved tattooed human heads) and a human skull fragment, and were held on our behalf by the Science Museum, London, secured in their stores.

Evidence suggests that one of the Toi moko was acquired in the early 1920s, and although there is a shortage of information about the provenance of the remains, the Board were satisfied with the probability of their being of Māori/Moriori origin.

To help inform the Board’s decision, archive investigations were carried out into the provenance, history and use of these particular remains and a wide range of independent expert opinion consulted. On the basis of the evidence put before it, the Board considered that the likely cultural, religious and spiritual significance of the remains to Māori/Moriori people outweighed their potential scientific, historical and educational value in this particular case.

Human remains are accorded great cultural and spiritual significance in Māori/Moriori communities today. For many Māori/Moriori people, today and in the past, ancestral remains are, or were, highly tapu (sacred or spiritually potent), requiring great care in handling, in both a physical and a spiritual sense, and the head considered the most tapu part of the body. There is also a growing interest on the part of Māori tribal communities in scientific research using their ancestral remains. Māori/Moriori researchers in New Zealand, potentially working in collaboration with non-Māori/Moriori researchers elsewhere, would seem best placed to conduct this research in the most culturally sensitive way.

On balance, the Board decided that the potential benefits of returning these particular remains, in terms of respect for diversity of beliefs, solidarity and Māori/Moriori wellbeing, prevailed over the remains’ past, present and future research value. The Board agreed to the repatriation of the human remains on condition that:

  • the Science Museum made a complete record of the remains before repatriation was undertaken
  • the remains be handled in an appropriate manner on their return to New Zealand, through the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in accordance with their policies for repatriation and with due consideration to the communities to whom the remains might belong
  • every effort be made to trace the provenance of each of the remains once they reached New Zealand, and if it is discovered that any of the remains are not in fact of New Zealand/Chatham Islands origin, arrangements be made for their return to the Science Museum
  • the decision does not set a precedent for any future claims, each of which will be examined on its individual merits.