Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dealing with Old Collections of Human Remains

In colonial times, preserved human heads made by Maoris were eagerly collected by private individuals for purposes one can only guess now. They were often deposited in museums by their heirs finding such objects in their homes after their death and not wishing to keep them. The trade began in the 18th century "Enlightenement"  and continued into the nineteenth century.  In 1831 the sale of these toi moko was banned by the governor of New Zealand, but the trade continued illegally for almost a century. Now there are an estimated 650 Maori remains held worldwide, mostly in European institutions. Other skeletal material (skulls in particular) were also eagerly collected for pseudo-scholarly or status-enhancing reasons. 

Wellcome Library, via BBC
The University of Birmingham in the UK currently has a large number of mummified heads, preserved tattooed heads and relics of sacrifices among the collection. Some 60 ancient body parts have been identified in the medical school stores, and the University no longer wants them in its stores. Deaccessioning these potentially culturally sensitive artefacts is a problem that has to be faced.
Dr June Jones, religious and cultural diversity expert at the university, said the remains reflect European exploration and the former British Empire.   Each item is boxed and labelled with a location, including Fiji, East Africa, Australia, the USA and New Zealand. Some are simply classified 'Inca'. The fact is the university would rather not own this material at all. There is scant paperwork about how the body parts came to be in Birmingham, but it is likely they were collected by wealthy individuals in the 1700s and 1800s before being donated to the medical school, which was founded in 1825. "To keep them would be wrong," said Dr Jones. "These items being stolen or traded is an example of historical practices we're now deeply ashamed of," she added. [...]  Dr Jones recently instigated the repatriation of a tattooed Maori head and skeletal remains to New Zealand. Inviting Maori delegates from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to collect the artefacts - their ancestors - was the culmination of more than two years' research work. Arapata Hakiwai, the Maori leader of the museum, said: "Repatriation is always very special, it's the return of our ancestors home." 
Source: Faye Chambers, 'What to do with an ancient skull and head collection?' BBC News Online23 November 2013

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