[clique aqui para a versão em português]

Janine Menezes y Ojeda [i] 


This article reports on the geopolitical scope of the museological context by proposing an approach for the study of the resignification in cases of repatriation of musealized collections. Museums and communities relate in different ways to the return of cultural heritage, from the application, going through several stages, from a consensual or judicial nature, based on bilateral arguments, specific legislation and political negotiation between nations. The methodology involves the analysis of cases of repatriation of Māori skulls from New Zealand by European Governments aiming to elucidate aspects of the cultural rights of indigenous peoples. The theoretical support and legal concepts intertwine in the defense of differentiated positions between governments and communities about the repatriation of human remains in order to guarantee the property and to safeguard the required patrimony. In a process under construction since the 80’s, ethical aspects referenced by ICOM and Unesco demonstrate relative progress in order to dignify beliefs and knowledge of indigenous communities towards the desired harmony and peace. From the political organization of the Māori in cases of repatriation, centered through the Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa -, a new paradigm emerges within long discussions, demanding innovative narratives in a cooperative system of knowledge exchange, interactivity, that ensures cultural rights and respect among nations, in order to raise the representation of peoples in the museums in a globalized world.

Key words: Museum Ethics. Repatriation. Musealized Heritage. Cooperation.



Los dos lados de la moneda: repatriación de los cráneos maorí em colecciones musealizadas 


Este artículo informa sobre el alcance geopolítico del contexto museológico al proponer un enfoque para el estudio de la resignificación en casos de repatriación de colecciones musealizadas. Los museos y las comunidades se relacionan de diferentes maneras con el retorno del patrimonio cultural, desde su aplicación, pasando por varias etapas, de naturaleza consensual o judicial, con base en argumentos bilaterales, legislación específica y negociación política entre naciones. La metodología implica en la análisis de casos de repatriación de calaveras maoríes procedentes de Nueva Zelanda por parte de gobiernos europeos con el objetivo de dilucidar aspectos de los derechos culturales de los pueblos indígenas. El soporte teórico y los conceptos legales se entrelazan en la defensa de posiciones diferenciadas entre gobiernos y comunidades sobre la repatriación de restos humanos para garantizar la propiedad y salvaguardar el patrimonio requerido. En un proceso en construcción desde la década de los 80, los aspectos éticos a los que hace referencia el ICOM y la Unesco demuestran un progreso relativo para dignificar las creencias y el conocimiento de las comunidades indígenas hacia la armonía y la paz deseadas. Desde la organización política de los maoríes en casos de repatriación, centrada en el Museo de Nueva Zelanda - Te Papa Tongarewa -, emerge un nuevo paradigma en largas discusiones, exigiendo narrativas innovadoras en un sistema cooperativo de intercambio de conocimiento, interactividad, que asegura los derechos culturales y el respeto entre las naciones, para elevar la representación de los pueblos en los museos en un mundo globalizado.

Palabras clave: Ética em Museos. Repatriación. Patrimonio musealizado. Cooperación.


The present article refers to the geopolitical scope in the museum context by proposing an approach regarding the need for resignification of collections, specially human remains (kōiwi tangata) of ethnographic collections from repatriation’s processes of museum cultural objects. For this, the return of tattooed skulls (toi moko) of the Māori and Moriori by some European museums is used as parameter, taking into account a historical reality that includes aspects such as: the commercialization of these skulls around 1770s (which lasted until the 1970s); the colonialist narrative; the preservation of the collection in Western museums for more than a hundred years, and the return of some skulls to Aotearoa (New Zealand), centralized through the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, for stay in sacred sites or burial by the descendants in their tribes (iwi) or subtribes (hapū).

In addressing the issues involved in the repatriation of human remains in museums of different nations, it is important to note that the entry of this type of collection in these cultural institutions was based on a colonialist and westernized view, influenced by geographers, anthropologists, artists and other crews of scientific expeditions around the world since the eighteenth century, such as the voyages made to New Zealand by Captain James Cook under the auspices of the British Crown. In addition, Orchiston (1967) highlights the intense traffic of the toi moko in the nineteenth century, involving foreigners and natives, which eventually led Governor Darling of New South Wales to institute a £ 40 fine for any individual found trying to sell a preserved head.

Thus, after a brief reference to the trajectory of some repatriation processes in New Zealand, it is intended to ratify the importance of ethical commitment among nations based on the anthropological concept of alterity (ability to put oneself in the place of the other in the interpersonal relationship) together with the continuity of research in order to propose new narratives within a post-colonial context. As methodology, it was essential to study the positions of the British, German and New Zealand governments from guidelines developed for the necessary care with human remains existing in collections of European museums, such as the German publication Recommendations for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and Collections (2013) and the British Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005).

In the twentieth century, advances were felt with the finalization of intertribal conflicts between the Māori leading to the foundation of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program by the National Museum of New Zealand in 2004, resulting from what Vuille (2011) would call a "unified identity construction, which makes the skulls perceived as the ancestors of all." In this sense, one can see the progress of the Māori local government in accordance with the guiding principles established in the program, namely: 1) the role of government is a facilitator - it does not claim ownership of kōiwi tangata; 2) The repatriation of foreign institutions and individuals is only by mutual agreement; 3) No payment for kōiwi tangata will be made to foreign institutions; (4) Kōiwi tangata shall be identified as original in New Zealand; (5) Māori shall be involved in the repatriation of kōiwi tangata, including the determination of definitive resting places where possible; and 6) The repatriation of kōiwi tangata shall be carried out in a culturally appropriate manner."

However, repatriation still causes controversy among trustees of the collections and claimants, each in defense of the permanence or return of these remains (kōiwi tangata), leading to extensive judicial processes as in the case of the French government or specific legislation as the British government, through the Human Tissue Act 2004.

Regarding to the resistance and arguments against the repatriation of the toi moko, it is mainly argued good preservation conditions in museums and the damage to scientific development, such as the return of the patrimony by France. In addition to these subject-matters, Rostkowski (2010) clarifies that the controversial discussions also took place due to the rigid legislation established since the Old Regime, which considers public national collections as imprescriptible and inalienable goods.

In French territory, Act 2002-5, dated January 4th, 2002, which replaced the 1945 Ordinance, emphasizes the principle of inalienability of the public domain, but also provides for the possibility of "declassifying" certain objects from museum collections, but only after prior authorization from a scientific committee. So it was only after a complex judicialization that cultural assets were returned to the Māori by the French government in 2012.

The partnership between the French and New Zealand nations resulted in a Māori exhibition: His Treasures Have Souls, in the Quai Branly Museum, with native curatorship by professionals from the National Museum of New Zealand. The closing of the exhibition occurred with the return, in official ceremony, of twenty toi moko ordered by the Māori.

According to Nina Vincent (2015), the tattooed skulls, representative of a hierarchy among the tribes, went to the Museum Te Papa Tongarewa, being conserved in a sacred place, with restricted access. Some of them returned to tribes or subtribes of origin after their recognition while others referred to small local museums.

Thus, an extension of curatorial proposals is expected, specially with regard to the narratives pertinent to these "objects" that no longer integrate ethnographic collections (after repatriation) as "national heritage" of the museums of the West. It is essential to emphasize that anthropological and ethnographic interpretations of the past, of an academicist nature, have shown a colonialist vision that no longer corresponds to the genuine cultural processes that currently occur among the peoples of the nations, a contact that must prevail for ethical principles, mutual respect and a spectrum of an expanded view of knowledge of the evolution of Humanity.

It should also be considered that in the context of interpretation, significant changes were felt in the context of Postmodern Anthropology, specially from the perspective of Geertz (1989) regarding the native's views, establishing the following consideration in the process of decolonization:

(...) the anthropological texts are themselves interpretations and, in fact, second and third hand (by definition, only a "native" interprets at first: it is their culture). They are, therefore, fictions; fictions in the sense that they are "something constructed", "something modeled" - the original sense of fictio - not that they are false, nonfactual or just thought experiments... To be convinced of this is to understand that the line between the mode of representation and substantive content is as intractable in cultural analysis as it is in painting (GEERTZ, 1989a, p.26)

The formation of ethnographic collections under the Western vision

The historian Peter Burke (2003) deals with the collection of artifacts with a singular point of view regarding the constitution of institutional collections: "The process of confiscation," annexation "or" scientific conquest "extended to archives, libraries and museums". The "collectors" could be said to select human remains and artifacts for the specific purpose of increasing the collection of curiosities and museum offices, which in turn used methods of registration and organization in collections enriched with anthropological interpretations in force at the time. However, during the frenzied search and collection of "curiosities" and exotic testimonies for scientific research, the author resorts to the frequent use of the term "looting" when referring to the formation of these collections, citing that: "several Western museums have acquired many artifacts of other cultures by dubious means, especially in the nineteenth century...".

Faced with this context, it is believed that the challenge to the trustees of museums persists in regard to the deepening of research on the provenance of their collections, in view of the "objectification" of human remains in the museological context. Although not specifically addressed directly in this article, this theme requires more improvement on the part of museum professionals in future projects, such as those developed by German and American museums.

In the West, museums use a "defunctionalized" musealia in the symbolic field, treating objects as "semiophores" (bearers of meaning) according to Krzysztof Pomian's classification (POMIAN apud DESVALLÉS, 2013). In dealing with human remains, in the specific case of the Māori toi moko, the skull of a chief or slave, a sacred object of the iwi (tribe), could not have been "defunctionalized" to characterize itself as another museal object for study purposes and/or exposure without taking into account critical conditions, as proposed by Desvallés (2013) when affirming that the museum object must be worked to be exposed.

Even though they have not been exposed to the public, human remains collected in the past from indigenous tribes and sub-tribes, when introduced into museum collections, have acquired a distinct focus, presenting a new vision when destined for research, as Devallés (2013) states that in scientific development what is taken into account is "the demand for the recognition of things in a universally intelligible context."

According to Vuille (2011), these skulls are characterized as true lineage testimonies, "connecting the mythical ancestors of their tribe (iwi) to the genealogies that bind the living to the deities (atua)." In her approach, Vincent (2015) points out that these types of testimony "are kept in a consecrated space (wahi tapu), under the eyes and only specialists of the sacred (tohunga) can manipulate them, on particular occasions”. In Maori's view, the exposure of his ancestors as ethnographic artifacts corresponds to an offense and a ban on the presentation of tattooed skulls a real achievement of the Maori political movement with the unfolding and consensus of the Treaty of Watangi from 1840.

After two centuries, human remains in museums, the targets of repatriation processes, should stimulate further reflection on the aggregation of new values, reinterpretations based on acquired knowledge and contact with the culture originating from indigenous tribes, through a system cooperation between nations.

Ethical Principles

In addition to the considerations of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums (2013), this approach was chosen by exposing certain items set out in the British Government's Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005) and Recommendations of Care of Human Remains in Museums and Collections (2013), from the German Association of Museums.

As for the British Guide (2005), five ethical principles are recommended to guide the decision-making of leaders in the conduct of this type of process, emphasizing that institutions and/or communities seek a balance in conflicting points, such as: Non-maleficence (injury or damage to the community and the general public); Respect for the diversity of beliefs (respecting the culture in question and having tolerance, modesty regarding the different cultural aspects); Respect for the value of science (including the benefits of research to Humanity); Solidarity (derived from mutual respect, understanding and cooperation, understanding that everyone should have a consensus on shared humanity) and Beneficence (basically "doing good" to the community or to the individual in search of good results).

The document's guidelines also address a crucial issue that refers to museums' choice of whether or not to display human remains or reproduce images of them to the public, noting that despite the importance of disclosure in some cases, this decision must emerge from a careful consideration and should be accompanied by appropriate explanatory material. Recommendations are also made on good storage conditions, since the collection is composed of organic material.

In the second case study, following the repatriation of Māori skulls by the Government of Germany through the Frankfurt Museum in 2011, the document "Recommendations for the Care of Humans Remains in Museums and Collections" (2013) was carelly developed and a Working Group was created specially for Provenance studies of their collections. In developing this documentation for the treatment of human remains, issues such as the conceptual scope and the "Context of Injustice" began to guide repatriation processes. Within this vision, one of the members of the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, Herewini (2017), expressed the Māori’s point of view regarding the content of the document, addressing the fact that Te Papa only seeks the return of unmodified remains, not those modified post mortem, which does not apply to skulls, since they maintain the integrity of their original characteristics in function of the mummification, differing from parts made from human bones like some flutes. Regarding the exposition of the Māori and Moriori remains, Herewini argues that: "(...) given the situation of how indigenous remains were collected and traded in the past, I do not think there is a substantive justification available for those same traces to be exhibited. It is important to note that Te Papa Tongarewa has a policy not to display Māori or Moriori".

In contrast, Cuno (2011) argues that claims of repatriation based solely on allegations regarding the national origin of the collections go against cultural exchange issues and the proposal to promote a cosmopolitan vision in encyclopedic museums such as the British Museum and the Museum of the Louvre. According to the author, in times of globalization, great museums should express "pluralism, diversity and the idea that culture should not stop at borders". "Cultural property must be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humanity and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite".

The Return of the Toi Moko to Aotearoa

According to information from the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, guardian of tattooed skulls and ancestor remains repatriated from the iwi Māori and Moriori, the institution is responsible for the presentation ceremony and welcome to the local Māori community. After the solemnity, the skulls (toi moko) go through a period of evaluation (quarantine) and conservation, in addition to engaging in new research to confirm origin for delivery to the families of origin.

This research involves four phases, which are: information about acquisition by museums; information from the oral history of the Māori and the version of explorers, merchants and collectors European and American, from 1769; data on intertribal battles and trading of skulls by enemies and studies with Māori tattoo experts for identification through tattoo patterns (moko). The Te Papa explains that it does not perform DNA tests on the ancestral remains of the Māori.

One of these phases can be explained by information about the acquisition of two skulls at the Royal College of Surgeons, quoted in the Te Papa Tongarewa Report (2016), which mentions the 1913 data recorded by conservatives:

Two crania from a cliff-deposit near Wanganui, at the southern extremity of the North Island. Their characters are not Māori, but Moriori – the inhabitants of Chatham Islands, who were supposed to have preceded the Māoris in New Zealand. Rev. H. Mason.

In terms of significance, the repatriation of the ancestral remains to the Māori and Moriori communities reveals that the connection between the past and the present is at the forefront of collective memory.

Since 2003, the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum has repatriated more than 400 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains of foreign institutions. They believe that there are still about 600 skulls to be returned. It should be noted that in the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program there is also a process of rescuing human remains on New Zealander soil, but this study only covers aspects related to the internationalization of repatriation processes by Aotearoa.

The importance of the ICOM in cases of repatriation

The restitution of cultural property is therefore an act of returning significant parts of the soul of cultures. It is an open hand to the Other, a symbolic act that reveals the will to develop intercultural dialogue and establish new forms of relationship between cultural groups (SCHEINER, 2010, p.35)

There are different types of negotiations for the repatriation of cultural goods, identified as judicial or consensual. The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums (2004) warns not only of research on human remains and sacred objects, which should consider "the interests and beliefs of the community and the ethnic and religious groups from which the goods originated", but also regarding the restitution of property specifically related to the position of the museum involved, advising that "if legally authorized, it must take the necessary steps to make restitution possible".

In clarifying this issue of the increase of collections due to the profusion of records acquired with the discoveries of the nineteenth century, a reality in the contemporary world scenario is present: the mediation made as a consensual resolution made by ICOM legal advisers in partnership with the Organization Intellectual property rights (WIPO) among nations involved in repatriation of collections, as an alternative way of avoiding the move towards costly and extensive litigation around the possession of cultural goods. Through a specific committee of the international body, there is currently a mediator service offering service regarding the provenance, restitution, return, possession and custody of objects that make up the collections of museums around the world.

Greater effectiveness tends to be more commonly implemented through mediators in order to facilitate and find more satisfactory solutions between the parties than court action. Throughout the process, the parties may opt for confidential mediation, avoiding wear and preserving the relationship between them. In the case of those objects allegedly stolen or exported illegally from the country of origin, Resolution No. 4 was approved by ICOM at its 22nd General Assembly in 2007, in order to prevent illicit trafficking and promotion in the physical return, repatriation and restitution of property cultural activities.

The political conquest of the Māori

In this view, the Māori seem to open the way and lead to new reflections on the unfolding of their political achievements, by requiring the repatriation of their heritage that still compose museum collections in other countries, besides holding, from a developed and significant framework identity, the control of its representation in the Western world. In this regard, Paul Tapsell (2009) points out different views between "colonizers" and "colonized" by clarifying that one part of the world (England, Europe and part of New Zealand) still considers James Cook as the great discoverer of the islands of the South Pacific, while the other part (inhabitants of Aotearoa) considers the arrival of the English commander as the beginning of a social cataclysm.

From written accounts, it appears that skulls, as well as skeletal remains occasionally, were collected from Māori graves in funerary caves by the Europeans without the consent of their descendant communities - a practice that today would be characterized as plunder, but in the Contemporary travel literature is often described in heroic terms. (GABRIEL, 2010, p.35)

For over thirty years, museums and members of Māori culture have held debates and discussions about a new conceptualization of the representation of culture in New Zealand museums, integrating a long process of decolonization. Within this evolutionary process, it reemerges the Treaty of Waitangi [1] (1840), guaranteeing legislation with basic principles such as partnership and active protection.

The adoption of biculturalism from the 1980s onwards would allow the existence of both cultures (British and Māori) with respect to values and traditions in different areas, including the complete mastery of each culture, in which the Māori self-determination stands out. According to Mccarthy (2011), one such initiative included the "adoption of Māori names of objects, exhibitions and museums, as well as practices and ceremonies."

In the 1990s, the Māori culture process was delineated in innumerable discussions, until the reform of museum practice was achieved, aiming at the aggregation of the Māori legacy spread in museums around the world. It is precisely the union and organization of the Māori that eventually led to demands for repatriation of their cultural assets, concentrated through the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum.

A new representation of knowledge in museums

In the globalized world and with the Museology advancement it is proposed a re-evaluation of the narratives presented over the centuries in traditional museums in relation to this collected heritage, taking into consideration a recontextualization of these collections, starting with new knowledge productions based on the principle of otherness, ethical aspects in relation to the different peoples, the geopolitical firmament of the communities, which can show, according to Thomas (1991) a better "symmetry between the appropriations of European artifacts and the colonial collection of indigenous things". The historical consequences of the interrelationship between colonizer and colonized in the contemporary scene are discussed, as well as the new representations of the collection returned to the original communities.

Museums that hold the collections and the claimants communities relate in different ways, according to the types of demands, regarding the return of the cultural heritage to their places of origin, within a process that includes the initial request, counteless analyzes and positions of representatives of the countries involved, entities, UNESCO legislation and documents of political negotiation between nations. Unquestionably, the experience and trajectory of UNESCO since 1970 and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), in addition to the independent negotiations between countries, are essential aspects in the contextualization of repatriation, trying to better losses for both parties involved.

New reflections should come to the fore by museum institutions as regards the representation of knowledge from a heritage initially inventoried as "national", preserved and researched over time by the "former owner", and which currently becomes a target to the original nations / communities. Museums can enhance partnerships in the development of scientific research among the nations involved, joining efforts in the production and dissemination of a new production of knowledge about Humanity.

With regard to museum narratives, Kuprecht (2013) points out that it is agreed by curators and scholars from various parts of the world that knowledge and record of the past are intrinsic to the objects of indigenous communities, plus the fact that their descendants may assist and enrich the interpretations of the collections through narratives differentiated from those in force in Western museums, offering a more real and exquisitely unprecedented perspective to the Western gaze.

The Māori contribution reveals itself uniquely and productively through the expressed words of Te Papakiekie (2016), a member of the Te Papa, in response to the guidelines of repatriation of the Germanic government: “Nāku te rourou nāu te rourou ka ora ai te iwi - With my food basket and your food basket our people will be nourished”. Thus, it is concluded that cooperative action and the quality of the interrelationships between indigenous communities and museum representatives tend to dignify the culture of the peoples even more, leading to significant advances in the dissemination of knowledge to the public.

[i] MMuseologist/ Lawer. Master in Information Science. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Este endereço de email está sendo protegido de spambots. Você precisa do JavaScript ativado para vê-lo.

[1] In the appendix of his publication, Conal McCarthy clarifies the meaning of the treaty, a milestone in the advance of the political conquest of the Māori: "The Treaty of Waitangi has two texts, one Māori and one English (...) both represent in agreement in which Māori gave the Crown rights to govern and to develop Bristish settlement, while the Crown guaranteed Māori full protection of their interest and status, and full citizenship rights. (2011, p.258)


  • atua - god,supernatural being, guardians or spiritual powers of the natural world
  • hapū - extended family group, subtribe or section of a large tribe, also word for 'pregnancy'
  • iwi - tribe, nation, people, also word for 'bone(s)'
  • kōiwi tangata - human bone (s) or skeletal remains
  • Moriori - the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands 800 kilometres east of New Zealand, descended from the same Polynesian settlers as the Māori
  • mokamokai – dried human head often tattooed, now often referred to as ‘toi moko’
  • moko - incised body adornment, tatoo
  • tohunga - expert, priest
  • toi moko - respectful modern term for decorated, tattooed preserved human head (also, mokamokai)
  • wahi tapu - special places, sacred spots; also special repositories in museums for human remains
    (MCCARTHY, 2011,p.263-270)


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