Repatriation research: Where to look

Conducting repatriation research will require you to look far and wide to ensure that nothing is missed.  

Within your museum

Start with your own museum’s records, especially original accession records and annual reports. These will often provide basic information relating to when the remains were collected and came in, their donor or collector, and where they were collected from. This information must be confirmed to ensure that it is correct.

Staff papers and presentations

Past or present staff may have undertaken research and, or, given papers on topics relevant to your research. Ask around, you may be surprised at what you find out.

Random boxes and files

Search through boxes of information or random files located in collection stores. They can be gold mines of information. Be aware of any other places where staff might have unofficially stored material.

Make friends with your museum’s librarian

They are also a wealth of information and an essential part of your provenance research network.

Outside the museum

Information relevant to kōiwi tangata in your collections may be held outside of the institution. This includes other museums, archives, universities, libraries, and even private or family collections.


Making use of local or national archives is essential in provenance research, although your first port of call will be your institution’s archives.

When searching for information start off by being specific (for example, by using the collector’s name). If this does not bring up what you are looking for, be prepared to widen your research scope and look for leads in more general places.

Probate records, wills, and census records may also be helpful, especially when creating a profile of your collector.

Other museums and institutions

These are important to make contact with as collectors often donated or sold taonga and kōiwi to more than one institution. This also gives a better understanding of the networks collectors were involved in.

Undertaking collaborative research with other museums can make the process easier – and creating your own networks can be beneficial for all involved. The New Zealand Repatriation Research Network was established in 2018 to support provenance research across museums.

Working with communities

Where a general location only is given, talking with iwi, hapū, and whānau connected to these locations is key. Enlisting their support, such as by seeking oral and historical advice and knowledge, can be fruitful as they have a more intimate knowledge of their rohe and where their tūpuna are buried.

Understanding the context

Understanding the trade and exchange of kōiwi tangata and taonga, within Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally, provides the researcher with context, such as the motives for collecting kōiwi tangata and how these changed over time. This better equips researchers to confirm provenance.

Project lead of Ngākaku, Amber Aranui demonstrates how historical maps can be a useful information source during provenance research at a Repatriation Network Meeting. National Services Te Paerangi repatriation workshop, 31 Mar 2021. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa (168649)

Checklist of where to look

1. Check your records

First, gather information from your museum’s database, such as KeEmu or Vernon, and more importantly from any original records such as accession books and registers.

There may be a number of sources to consult, including annual reports, department registers, and collector files.

2. Physically check the remains

This is important as it was common museum practise to record information on the remains themselves, either with the use of labels or writing directly on the bone.

The use of a black light or UV light is essential as it can pick up faded or indecipherable writing. Make a note of the types of labels used as this may provide further clues as to how and when the tupuna came to be in your museum.

In the same sense, handwriting can provide information or identify a collector. During the physical check, examine the boxes containing the remains for relevant information written on them or contained inside, such as letters or notes.

3. Check your archives

If a collector has been identified in association with the remains, then it is essential to check your museum’s archives for any relevant correspondence.

4. Review journals or correspondence

Tracking down journals, notebooks, and other correspondence relevant to the collector or donor is essential. These may not be held in your museum, but could be in local or national archives, or even at another museum.

5. Widen the research scope and follow the paper trail

This includes seeking out published and unpublished material, including newspapers of the day. PapersPast has digitised over 80,000,000 articles, letters, and diaries, making it a rich source of information.

Other places, such as Archives New Zealand and the Alexander Turnbull Library Collections, hold a wealth of information, including manuscripts, journals, and notebooks from a number of early New Zealand explorers, collectors, and scientists.

6. Consult maps, surveys, and archaeological documents

Old survey plans and maps are an untapped mine of information, as are documents relating to recorded archaeological sites.

Understanding the landscape, and what was present in the past, can provide clues as to where kōiwi were collected from.

7. Know the networks and relationships between museums and collectors

In order to follow the paper trail, understand the networks your museum and associated collectors and donors were involved in.

These can identify further lines of enquiry to explore, which may help to confirm provenance. Networks existed both nationally and internationally.

8. Provenance and ownership

Provenance not only includes the location from where kōiwi tangata were taken but also includes understanding ‘ownership’ history.

It is not uncommon for a tupuna to have been in the possession of several collectors or institutions before we come across them. Understanding this history, and following the ‘ownership’ paper trail back in time, can help confirm the information associated with them.

This may entail following their journey around the country or the world before coming to their original collector. This research can take years to complete, and having a network of colleagues across museums helps.

It is vital that information discovered about ancestral remains can be confirmed, as all too often, assumptions about provenance and collectors have been made in collections records.

Next: Repatriation research: Where to next