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Toi Moko leaves Montreal museum to return to its ancestral home of New Zealand
In a moving ceremony, officials returned Toi Moko to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in Wellington.

MONTREAL.- The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned a Toi Moko to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in Wellington, in a moving ceremony with officials from both museums present. The return to New Zealand of this Māori head follows a request by the indigenous māori population of New Zealand that, for the past two decades, has been making efforts to repatriate about 500 tattooed and mummified remains or heads in public and private collections around the world.

In 2011, at the urging of the Museum’s management, the MMFA’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in favour of this request, which, it felt, “is not true restitution, and thus a transfer of property, because ownership of the human body is inalienable.”

“In the context of the research done last year on the collections of world cultures at our Reinvented Museum, Te Papa’s request warranted attention,” said Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA’s Director and Chief Curator. “It’s a relief to know that these remains will now be laid to rest in the land of their ancestors and that they will never again be exposed to public curiosity or stored as artefacts in museum reserves. The way we see things has evolved and today, we feel it is normal for human dignity to be respected, even if ethical questions remain, in my opinion, about what we put on view, notably with respect to certain exhibitions of cadavers. This issue is still very topical.”

The MMFA’s Toi Moko (1949.Pc.14), donated by F. Cleveland Morgan, was acquired on August 9, 1949, from the Berkeley Galleries in London. This mummified head, with tattooed skin, mounted on a woven crown of plant fibres sewn to the skin of the neck has been displayed from 1982 to 1984. Since then, it has been conserved in the museum’s reserves. In fact, with the European colonization of New Zealand in the eighteenth century, Māori heads became the object of a certain fascination. They were considered as curios and private amateurs and museums of the time began seeking out the most striking tattooed heads. A trade developed between Europeans and the Māori peoples, who used the heads as a form of currency with the colonists.

To date, some 320 remains have been repatriated from 14 countries. In addition to three human fragments from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, this is the fifth Māori head from Canada to be returned to its ancestral homeland, after the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal Ontario Museum in 2008. While much was written about the 2011 restitution of Māori heads conserved in France, because of the national inalienability of the collections, English-speaking and Scandinavian countries, among others, have responded to New Zealand’s requests since the 1990s.

Significance of the “Māori heads”
In the Māori culture, every person has mana, a complex concept that represents a sort of emanation of a person’s spiritual power, a life force associated with social status and ritual power. For the Māori, mana—embodying such values as loyalty, solidarity, prestige and power—resides in the most sacred part of the body: the head. The greater a person’s importance in the tribe, the more spiritual strength and power he has and thus, more mana.

Māori tattooing, known as Ta Moko, is an ancestral practice of marking the body and face. It is done with chisels called uhi, which used to sculpt the body and face, creating grooves on the surface of the skin. For the Māori, the very act of tattooing is a sacred moment, a ritual. Each moko design is unique and reflects the wearer’s personal history, indicating, for example, his genealogy, tribal affiliations, social status, feats and functions. Māori tattoos reveal a person’s history and rank, serving as a sort of social and religious signature. Men’s tattoos were on the face, buttocks, thighs and arms, whereas for women it was usually the lips and chin. When the person died, his head was mummified and conserved in a place to honour his memory. Then, once it was felt that the soul of the departed had been honoured, the head was buried or hidden near the village.

The repatriation of the toi moko (Māori heads) to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington
For several years, the New Zealand government has been supporting, alongside māori, an extensive campaign to secure the return of these heads, which are located in various museums around the world, in response to the Māori people’s expectations regarding respect for their ancestors and their homeland.

Since the early 1970s, political movements by indigenous populations—North American Indians, the Aborigines of Australia and Tasmania—have contested the way their ancestors’ remains were being treated in museums. Since then, out of respect for Māori traditions, the heads have been removed from public display and conserved in the reserves, at New Zealand’s request. In 2001, Te Papa introduced a repatriation program called “Karanga Aotearoa,” and a policy was drafted with guidelines for responding to requests for the repatriation of the koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) and toi moko (tattooed heads) conserved in museums around the māori world. In 2003, Te Papa was officially mandated by the New Zealand government to repatriate māori human remains.

Today, the Te Papa is continuing its efforts to bring home the māori ancestors conserved in public and private collections outside New Zealand.

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