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Maori heads may return home

Published: 12:42PM Thursday November 06, 2003

The return of shrunken Maori heads - mokomokai - to New Zealand could soon be sped up following a recommendation to the British government.

A committee of experts has called for Britain to change the law to enable museums to hand back body parts collected centuries ago in often barbarous circumstances.

For many people the remains are just a number, but for Maori they hold special importance.

The curator of the Maori collection at Auckland's War Memorial Museum wants the mokomokai brought home.

"Human remains are part of the cycle of ancestors to papatuanuku, the earth mother, and while they are in museums we are interfering with that cycle, says Paul Tapsell.

Indigenous peoples from several parts of the world have been campaigning for the return of the remains of their ancestors, taken to feed the insatiable English scientific appetite.

In many cases, data from the remains was used to further the notion of white supremacy over indigenous peoples or simply to satisfy a ghoulish appetite for sensation.

The Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections also proposed the creation of a special Human Remains Advisory Panel to arbitrate in cases where requests for return were disputed.

"The statutes...should be amended to empower national museums to relinquish human remains," it said in a report.

The report recommended that museums that voluntarily handed over the remains in their vaults should be immune from any legal liability for the circumstances of their arrival in their collections, but said return should not be yet made compulsory.

Some museums have complied with requests for the return of body parts, but others have said they cannot return the items, which include whole skeletons, skulls and body parts, because an act of parliament insists collections are kept intact.

"There is substantial evidence that communities are grieving because they cannot lay their ancestors to rest," the report said. "Many human remains were obtained without consent in circumstances of barbarity and oppression.

"While it is not contended that particular museums were the perpetrators of these wrongs, they are, to some degree at least, the beneficiaries," it added.

In the first comprehensive survey of human remains kept by museums in the country, the report said a total of 60 institutions were holding human remains from overseas - including New Zealand.

Of these 13 had received a total of 33 requests for the return of some or all of the remains.

A total of seven of the requests had been agreed to, decisions on five others were pending and 21 had been rejected for various reasons.

But the report noted that last year the French National Museum of Natural History had finally agreed to return to South Africa the remains of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, and in 2000 Spain returned to Botswana the skull of El Negro.

The late Dalvanius Prime was one of the most vocal advocates of repatriating mokomokai. Five years ago he brought home 11 mokomokai from Edinburgh and Scarborough universities.

© Reuters/One News