Natural History Museum Vienna Returns Bones of Members of the Māori and Moriori to New Zealand

Lifestyle & TravelMore+ ♦ Published: September 27, 2022; 21:11 ♦ (Vindobona)

Bones of members of the Māori and Moriori people were returned to Aotearoa, New Zealand, during a repatriation ceremony at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

The Natural History Museum of Vienna returned bones of members of the Māori and Moriori to Aotearoa, New Zealand. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / [Public Domain]

The Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program is conducting the repatriation of Māori and Moriori remains from the collections of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. This project is conducted in partnership between the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum (Wellington), the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHM), the Austrian Federal Government, and the New Zealand Embassy in Vienna.

Bones exhumed without permission

In the 19th century, the remains of children, youth, men and women of the Maori and Moriori peoples of Aotearoa (the Maori designation for New Zealand) and Rekohu (Chatham Islands) arrived at the NHM in Vienna. The Chatham Islands are located southeast of New Zealand's North Island. The archipelago was inhabited by the Moriori for centuries before they were attacked by Maori tribes in the mid-19th century.

New provenance research by the New Zealand National Museum and the NHM suggests that the bones of the two peoples were exhumed without permission at the time and reached the NHM via various expeditions and explorers. The remains in question are 27 skulls, 20 skullcaps, and 15 loose lower jaw and upper jaw fragments.

Scientists and students from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington and the Department of Anthropology at the NHM were involved in the provenance research. The Te Papa Museum, with the support of the New Zealand government, coordinates repatriations from around the world.

Repatriation of remains to New Zealand

The repatriation of human remains is intended to recognize the ethical and moral injustice caused by reckless collection practices. Mortal remains of indigenous relatives were also taken out of the country in disregard of their world and value concepts. They were anthropometrically examined, racialized and not infrequently put on public display. In this way, they were robbed of their identity as ancestors of living societies and degraded into museum objects.

Mr. Parone Gloyne (Māori cultural expert, Te Papa), Dr. Arapata Hakiwai (Māori co-leader, Te Papa) and H.E. Ambassador Brian Hewson (New Zealand Embassy in Austria) spoke at the official handover. Austria and the NHM Vienna were represented by Mag. Jürgen Meindl (Head of the Arts and Culture Section, Federal Ministry of Arts, Culture, Civil Service and Sport), Dr. Katrin Vohland (Director General of the NHM Vienna) and Prof. Dr. Sabine Eggers (Anthropologist, NHM Vienna).

Among other things, sacred Maori rites were performed at the ceremony. Afterwards, the transfer agreement was signed and gifts were exchanged. The New Zealand Embassy expressed its delight and honor at the repatriation on Twitter.

Dr. Katrin Vohland, Director General and Scientific Director of the NHM Vienna emphasized the significance of the project and its importance for all involved. "I am impressed by how much the repatriation process is driven by the desire for reconciliation, and I am pleased that we can contribute to the healing process," said Dr. Vohland. "I am grateful for the opportunity to grow the relationship between Austria and New Zealand on a scientific and personal basis of trust."

The goal of repatriating human remains from museum collections is dehumanization and thus the concomitant restoration of the individual dignity of the deceased and their important role as donors of identity to contemporary societies.

Vienna Natural History Museum

Embassy of New Zealand to Austria