Repatriation research: Provenance research

Provenance research is an essential part of museological practice, and even more so when it comes to repatriation, whether of kōiwi tangata or taonga.

This resource has been designed to aid museums in undertaking provenance research on the kōiwi tangata they hold. The aim of undertaking this research is to enable ancestors to return to their descendants and to the land from which they were taken.

What is provenance?

Provenance is a term used to define the source or origin of something. In the context of museums, provenance can refer to the origin of an object as well as its ownership history.

Provenance is derived from the French term provenir, meaning to come from or forth, or originate.[1]

Origins of provenance research

Provenance research began in the art world with the collection of information relating to the movement of objects from the time of their creation through to their sale and, or, exchange up to the present day. This provides a type of pedigree of ownership as well as confirming authenticity.

Provenance research has been used by many museums around to world to undertake in-depth investigations into paintings that might have been subject to Nazi-era looting. Films such as Woman in Gold and The Monuments Men have brought to light the importance of provenance research and the return of art to its rightful owners.

The same research approach has been used to learn more about artefacts and other objects held in museums, and today provenance research around the world is increasingly being used for repatriation purposes.

Purpose of provenance research

Research into the provenance of taonga or tūpuna can provide a richer, more detailed understanding of their history and movement, and of the cultural context in which they were created or collected.

It is a history of people was well as objects, and its study can reveal an often-intricate network of relationships, patterns of activity, and motivations. — Nick Pearce and Jane Milosch, 2019

Provenance research is an essential tool for the repatriation and restitution of culturally significant taonga and tūpuna, and is increasingly used in Treaty settlement claims.

Provenance research is critical for successful repatriations because it can:

  • identify or confirm the iwi, hapū, or community of origin

  • ensure that all ancestral remains from a particular area or location are identified within a museum

  • ensure that all elements belonging to an individual are accounted for

  • show how the ancestral remains came to be at a museum

  • provide communities of origin with all relevant information

The consequences of not doing provenance research, or not doing it well, include:

  • holding incomplete or incorrect information

  • holding minimal information, for example, knowing a region but not a specific location

  • missing key information such as links to other collectors, museums, and so on

  • repatriating to the wrong iwi, hapū, or whānau

  • not knowing about missing elements of an ancestor because their original separation is unknown.


[1] Pearce, N, and Milosch, J C (eds). Provenance and Collecting: A multidisciplinary approach. London: Rowman and Littlefield, xv. 2019

Next: Repatriation research: where to start