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Oxford University to return Maori Remains

Oxford University to return Maori and Moriori remains to New Zealand

The University of Oxford has agreed to a request by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for the return to New Zealand of four sets of human remains held in the University Museum of Natural History.

The remains, all acquired by Oxford during the 19th century, include two Maori skulls, a Maori half pelvis and a female Moriori skull from Chatham Island. Preliminary approaches regarding repatriation were initiated by Te Papa in summer 2005 as part of the New Zealand Government’s policy of seeking the return of Maori and Moriori remains – known as koimi and koiwi tangata. A formal claim was submitted by Te Papa in January 2007.

This is the first time that human remains have been returned under a new claims procedure established by the University in 2006. The procedure reflects the University’s duty of care towards human remains in its collections. It requires the University, when considering repatriation requests, to assess the significance of the remains for education and research and, if the request is approved, to ensure that remains are returned to the appropriate community.

The University would expect any claim to come from the same community of origin as the remains and to be supported by the relevant national government body. In assessing the validity of claims the University considers the age of the remains, their spiritual and cultural significance and the extent of the genealogical connection of the claimant community.

The University reviewed its records for documentary confirmation that the items were from New Zealand. This was supported by a morphometric analysis measuring the size and shape of the skulls.

The University also carried out an assessment of the scientific and educational value of the remains, on which it sought advice from internal and external experts in the relevant fields. The University has concluded that these are not unique items, and that they are of no particular use in, for example, the study of historic migration patterns.

Professor Jim Kennedy, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History said: ‘This is the first time that the University’s procedure for repatriation has been used. It has enabled us to balance our duty of care for these items, the requirements of science and the sensitivities and beliefs of the claimant community. It has been a pleasure working with Te Papa, who have provided us with extensive information and background material that enabled us to move through this process relatively swiftly and reach a decision.’

The items will be returned to New Zealand in due course. At first they will be sent to Te Papa, which maintains two consecrated repositories, or wahi tapu, in which to store repatriated remains. However Te Papa only serves as a temporary store until the items can be returned permanently to the relevant iwi – Maori and Moriori tribal groups.


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