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Te Papa welcomes home ancestral remains

News: 2 October 2022

Te Papa media release.

This morning, Te Papa welcomed home Māori and Moriori ancestral remains, repatriated from the Natural History Museum, Vienna. A repatriation pōwhiri marked the return of these ancestors.   

The first repatriation to New Zealand from the Natural History Museum, Vienna, and the biggest repatriation from Austria, includes a group of Māori and Moriori ancestors that represent the remains of approximately 64 individuals. Records indicate that 49 of these ancestors were collected by Austrian taxidermist and notorious grave-robber Andreas Reischek who spent 12 years in New Zealand from 1877 to 1889.

Professor Sir Pou Temara, Repatriation Advisory Panel Chair, acknowledged the importance of this major repatriation.

“These ancestors were stolen by those with no regard for the Māori communities they belonged to,” Sir Pou said.

“In his diary entries Reischek boasts of eluding Māori surveillance, looting sacred places and breaking tapu – he knew exactly what he was doing. His actions were wrong and dishonest.

“It is always a spiritual relief and privilege to welcome back our ancestors who have been victims of such wrongdoing. Culturally we know that they are weeping with joy now that they have returned to Aotearoa where at last they will rest in peace.”

Image of the tūpuna and kārapuna (ancestors) laid on the atamira (stage), 2 Oct 2022, courtesy of Te Papa.

This pivotal repatriation concludes 77 years of negotiation between New Zealand and Austria.

Te Papa’s Kaihautū | Māori Co-leader Dr Arapata Hakiwai recognised the Natural History Museum, Vienna and the Austrian government for enabling the return of the ancestors.

“These ancestors’ journey home has been long-awaited, and is made possible by the mutual agreement of the Museum and the Austrian government,” Dr Hakiwai said.

“This historic repatriation helps to reconcile the colonial past and opens a new chapter in relationships between Māori, Moriori, and the New Zealand and Austrian governments.”

Te Papa’s Acting Head of Repatriation Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside has worked closely with colleagues in Austria.

“The Natural History Museum, Vienna has made a profound commitment to right the wrongs of the past, and approached this work with a spirit of openness and reconciliation,” Mamaku-Ironside said, but “there was still work to do”.

“While we’ve seen an increase in conversations about repatriating human remains, there is still a lot of work to do to bring all our ancestors home.”

Dr. Katrin Vohland, Director General and Scientific Director, Natural History Museum, Vienna acknowledged the importance of the undertaking, and its significance for all parties.

“I’m impressed by how much the repatriation process is driven by the wish for reconciliation, and am happy we can contribute to the healing process,” Dr Vohland said.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities to let the relationship between Austria and New Zealand grow trustfully on a scientific and personal basis.”

The ancestors will be held in Te Papa’s wāhi tapu (sacred space) while provenance research is undertaken, followed by engagement with whānau, hapu and iwi to determine their final resting place.  

The Natural History Museum’s formal handover ceremony took place in Vienna and included tikanga Māori (indigenous cultural customs and protocols).

At the ceremony, Austria’s Minister for Arts and Culture, Juergen Meindl, acknowledged the hurt caused by the theft.

“We deeply regret the disrespectful and unjustified treatment of your ancestors,” he said.

In attendance were representatives of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, Dr Arapata Hakiwai, Māori cultural experts, and The New Zealand Ambassador to Austria, His Excellency Brian Hewson.

Updated on 3rd October 2022