Returning an ancestor, a reflection

This week Manchester has been shocked to the core by an act of violence that killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena. This has resulted in not just a citywide, but a nationwide outpouring of emotion, and there is a tangible feeling of community and connectivity among the people living, working and studying in Manchester. Since childhood, I have always had a feeling of belonging, and a sense of place at Manchester Museum, and our message this week is that the museum is open, and we welcome all.

Today’s post is a reflection on the repatriation of an ancestral human remain to Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand, earlier this week, and it is perhaps fitting that the ideas touched upon here are those of belonging, respect, community, peace and place, all of which are being felt so acutely currently by the people of Manchester.

Returning an ancestor, a reflection

On Monday 22nd May, I sat amongst colleagues and guests, in nervous anticipation, feeling both privileged to be witnessing something that happens perhaps only once in a decade, and very proud to be a part of Manchester Museum, as we were putting into practice our core values of compassion and respect that are at the heart of everything we do and that we stand for.

international-repatriation_tile (1)Repatriation ceremony, 2014. Photograph by Kate Whitely (Image from Te Papa).

On Monday 22nd May, in a formal ceremony, a human jawbone belonging to an individual from the Moriori people was deaccessioned from the collection at Manchester Museum and handed over to delegates from Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.

The handover ceremony at Manchester was one among several taking place across Europe, with a total of 59 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains being returned to their descendants in New Zealand. The pōwhiri, at which the ancestors will be formally welcomed home will take place at Te Papa Tongarewa on Monday 29th May 2017.

In advance of the ceremony, both Museums offered statements about the repatriation;

“We are delighted to be returning the remains of this individual to the community New Zealand. Collecting of indigenous human remains in the 19th century by Western museums was a regrettable chapter in museum history and one which we are happy to redress.”

– Dr Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum

Manchester Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand

 “It is important we re-connect ancestral human remains with their homelands. In this situation Te Papa was informed by a member of the general public who spotted the Moriori ancestor’s accession information online, and we followed this up. We are pleased we could provide evidence to allow this ancestor to come home.”

– Te Herekiekie Herewini, manager of the repatriation programme at Te Papa Tongarewa

Moriori – The people of the Misty Sun

The Moriori are the indigenous people of Rēkohu (literally meaning ‘Misty Sun’), a small group of islands off mainland New Zealand, also known as the Chatham Islands following the landing of William R. Broughton on the HMS Chatham in 1979.

Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands (Images from BBC, North West Tonight)

The Moriori were described by Te Herekiekie Herewini in the handover ceremony as peaceful peoples, who, being from a small island, have always been used to working together, he contrasted them with the Māori who he said have an aggressive streak, from the mainland, who are probably most well-known for the All Blacks and the Haka. He talked about both the Māori and Moriori as both being Polynesian people, “so we do have a genetic and cultural connection but their ancestors were the first of the Chathams and our ancestors were the first to mainland New Zealand.”

A Bittersweet Celebration

The day’s proceedings started with a private ceremony in the Museum stores, in which the Te Herekiekie Herewini and Hema Temara, introduced themselves to the ancestor, letting the ancestor know that they came in peace, and were going to return them to their iwi, their community. Te Herekieke Herewini explained that during this ceremony they were offering respect and dignity back to the ancestor.


Te Herekiekie Herewini and Hema Temara with the Moriori ancestoral remains. (Image from BBC, North West Tonight)

This was followed by the public handover in the Kanaris Theatre at Manchester Museum, which included the formal transfer of custodianship of the Moriori jawbone. The representatives from both Museums entered together, in procession, and this part of the ceremony included traditional chants and accompaniment. The ancestor, in a box, was placed on the table at the front of the theatre, and covered with a blanket.

hui-a-rohe_tile.jpgRepatriation ceremony, 2014. Photograph by Kate Whitely (Image from Te Papa).

The atmosphere in the room was one of respect, reverence, a kind of bittersweet celebration, and perhaps also curiosity, with just the right amount of humour. This was not a performance, this was not theatre. There was meaning so deeply embedded into the words and the ceremony, that this was not just connecting with an indigenous culture, but seeing them connect with their human remains in a way that we do not have an accesses to fully understanding. This feeling for everyone present was summed up by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures at Manchester Museum, in his public address, when he described this as “a truly emotional moment.”

The Moriori Ancestor

Te Papa Tongarewa are committed to careful object and archival research before the repatriation of any ancestors to their homeland. In the case of this Moriori jawbone, the origins and collection history were not complex. Written on the inside of the jawbone is ‘Chatham Isles. Forbes 10192’, this evidenced that the ancestral remain was collected by Henry Ogg Forbes (1851-1932), a Scottish explorer, ornithologist and botanist. He was director of the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand from 1890 to 1893, and during this time he visited Rēkohu, Chatham Islands, where he led a scientific expedition, spoke with Moriori elder Hirawanu Tapu, and observed and collected natural history specimens, including Kārapuna. Henry Forbes provided Morioru remains to other institutions in the United Kingdom as well.

Te Herekieke Herewini estimates that there are around 600 ancestral remains still to come home.

Promoting Understanding and Respect Between Cultures

Repatriation is an emotive word, particularly in recent times it has been used alongside the images of the fallen military returning to their homeland in coffins draped in their Nations flag. It is also a word loaded with both the history of decolonisation, and multicultural respect, as more and more museums are working in communication with source communities to recognise and return ancestral humans remains, and culturally significant objects.

It is a saddening part of the history of collecting that many indigenous human remains, in both New Zealand and Australia became tradable commodities. This kind of collecting was commonplace by both individuals and museums in the 19th century, under the misplaced assumption that they would be of scientific importance in the study of human evolution.

The process of repatriation can never undo these wrongs, and it is both humbling and heartening to see ceremonies like, and the ways that museums and other institutions are changing in their outlook and worldview.

“Working with indigenous groups we recognise now that there will be certain objects that are so important to them and critical to their culture that we have to be sensitive about how and not only whether we display them, so we do that in conjunction and connection with indigenous groups, but also how we store them.”

– Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures, Manchester Museum

The policies and practices of each museum are often led by the collections housed and by the vision, relationships and priorities of its directorship. Manchester Museum, through directors Tristram Besterman and Nick Merriman, and Curators George Bankes and Stephen Welsh, has forged and maintained valuable relationships and taken guidance from Te Papa, and who have made significant contributions to policy and driving the Museum’s vision; ‘promoting understanding between cultures and developing a sustainable world’.

The journey home – a reflection

I hadn’t known what to expect from the ceremony. With an academic passion for museum ethics and policy, this was always going to be a fascinating occasion, but it was more than just postcolonial theory and deaccessioning of a museum object. This was about people. Our chequered colonial past, and the actions of our own ancestors were an important, visible and necessary part of the dialogue. But Te Herekieke Herewini came in peace, and this wasn’t a forum for judgement, and was less about addressing colonial wrongs, it was about bringing the ancestor home.

On 22nd May 2017, a Moriori ancestor began the long journey home.

 “Upon the raised platform
your skin has been touched
by a cold bitter wind
that carries your spirit away.”*

Michelle Scott

*A traditional chant “Where have my people gone”. Described as by Te Herekieke Herewini as a lament that means a lot to people who have been a long time away from home.



One thought on “Returning an ancestor, a reflection

  1. Reblogged this on Ancient Kings and Things and commented:

    A reflection on the repatriation of an ancestral human remain from Manchester Museum to Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand, touching upon ideas of belonging, respect, community, peace and place, all of which are being felt so acutely currently by the people of Manchester.

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