Remains of Māori back in New Zealand


Amsterdam UMC returned the remains of Māori to the country of origin. During a ceremony in Location AMC, the curator of Museum Vrolik returned a tattooed head and the bones of eight ancestors to a delegation of Māori, the first inhabitants of New Zealand.

Museum Vrolik’s collection consists for a large part of anatomical preparations that were obtained in the nineteenth century by people like Gerard Vrolik and his son Willem. One of the museum’s pieces is a Toi Moko, a tattooed Māori head. The facial decorations, which are applied by carving and scratching the skin, indicate a high social status. The Moko show the social status and ancestry of the wearer. Willem Vrolik bought this decorated head from a merchant between 1850 and 1863. It is likely that the head came to Amsterdam via London.

The bones of eight people of the Moriori, a people who lived on the Chatham Islands and are closely related to the Māori, have been returned as well. The islands are part of New Zealand. The three skeletons and five skulls were bought in 1908 and ended up in the university collection. The remains were taken from a place of burial by a biologist from New Zealand who was conducting research on birds.

The Amsterdam UMC returned the remains after a request by the Māori. The government of New Zealand supports the repatriation. The Māori are running a large-scale programme to repatriate the remains of their ancestors that are kept in institutions all over the world. The debate among museums about such repatriation has been a lengthy one. What should be done with the remains that were taken (most likely, stolen) centuries ago, probably against the will of surviving relatives, and placed in museums in faraway places?

King of Ghana
It is not the first time that the Netherlands have returned human remains to the country of origin. In 2009, the head of the king of Ghana, which was kept by the Museum of Anatomy in Leiden, was repatriated.

The Toi Moko will be sent to Te Papa, the national museum in the capital city of Wellington. It will be stored there and studied to discover more about its origin (tribe). The bones will be returned to the Chatham Island to be reburied.

Welcomed with tears
Te Herekiekie Herewini, head of the delegation, is delighted about the repatriation: “The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) thanks Museum Vrolik for their work. The remains of the Moriori and Māori can now be safely returned to their homeland. Even though these ancestors have been away from their community for years, they were never forgotten. Their spiritual and cultural connection remains unsevered to this day. They will be welcomed and embraced with tears once they return to their native soil. Museum Vrolik will be recognized for its empathy, so our ancestors may feel the spirit and warmth of their homeland once again.”

Laurens de Rooy, curator of Museum Vrolik, said: “Ever since the 1990s, the Māori have been working to repatriate the remains of their ancestors, which have been sold as curiosities all over the world since the nineteenth century. Knowing the importance the Māori place on restoring the cultural and spiritual connection between these ancestors and their homeland, there was no other option but to fully support the repatriation.”

Text: Marc van den Broek
Photographs: Hans van den Bogaard