Largest repatriation of ancestral remains in New Zealand’s history announced

1 December 2014

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the American Museum of Natural History are pleased to announce the return of 107 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains to New Zealand.

The remains include 35 Toi moko (preserved Māori tattooed heads), two tattooed thigh skins, 24 kōimi tangata Moriori (Moriori skeletal remains), and 46 kōiwi tangata (Māori skeletal remains).

The repatriation follows face-to-face discussions in March 2013 when Te Papa staff were in New York to open the Whales: Giants of the Deep touring exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. A formal repatriation request from Te Papa followed in May 2013.

“The decision by the American Museum of Natural History to repatriate these remains is to be applauded,” chair of Te Papa’s Repatriation Advisory Panel Professor Pou Temara says.

"We are very pleased to welcome the Te Papa delegation, who will return the Māori and Moriori ancestral remains to their homeland through the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme at Te Papa," American Museum of Natural History assistant curator of anthropology Dr. Jennifer Newell says. "We met numerous colleagues from Te Papa when we hosted the Whales exhibition last year, and we look forward to ongoing collaboration."

The ancestral remains were collected from the early 1800s up until the 1900s when there was a strong commercial trade and network in ‘indigenous peoples’ remains’ particularly in Europe and North America. This was fuelled by an intense curiosity with ‘native peoples’ culture and physical anthropology amongst very wealthy collectors, academic institutions, medical schools, and museums.

“We are extremely thankful to the Board of the American Museum of Natural History for their consideration and approval to return these tipuna. Their genuine commitment to the repatriation of indigenous remains allows our country to resolve a very dark period in our history,” Te Papa’s Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai says.

The physical handover of the ancestral remains will take place in New York at 10am on 1 December (4am Tuesday 2 December, New Zealand time).

The remains will arrive at Te Papa in Wellington on Friday 5 December and will be formally welcomed home after more than 100 years away with a powhiri at 9am by Māori tribal leaders, the New Zealand Government and two representatives from the American Museum of Natural History.

They will then go through a period of quarantine, conservation and research before being returned to their whānau.

Media contacts

Rachael Bruce, Senior Communications Adviser, Te Papa
+64 29 601 0010 or +64 4 381 7071

Roberto Lebron, Senior Director of Communications, American Museum of Natural History
(212) 496 – 3411

Notes for editors

Photos from the New York handover ceremony will be available on request after the event. Media are welcome to attend both handover ceremonies but need to register their attendance with the local museum’s communications team in advance. Media wanting to attend the Te Papa pōwhiri need to be at the museum by 8.45am on Friday to secure a spot.

Further information

Media release - Repatriation questions and answers (305.73 KB)

Media guidelines for reporting at repatriation handover ceremonies (125.99 KB)

History of the Robley collection at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) (126.95 KB)

History of the Māori ancestral remains returning from AMNH (168.64 KB)

History of the Moriori ancestral remains returning from AMNH (133.60 KB)

Te Papa research into the early collection and trade of Toi moko (81.54 KB)