‘Their time in the light’ – the repatriation of cultural taonga


The return of Taonga should not be treated as a “moment of loss” for a museum.

These comments are from Dr. Gerard O’Regan (Ngāi Tahu), Māori curator at the Tūhura Otago Museum, who has announced two major repatriations of artifacts acquired at the museum in as many weeks.

The first of these returned taonga was a taiaha (a long wooden weapon) brought back to Ngāti Maniapoto as part of the agreement of the iwi treaty after the museum received advice from local Rūnanga.

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On Tuesday, the museum announced that it would also be returning six cultural artefacts, including a kalpunta (boomerang), a palya/kupija (adze) and a selection of martan (stone knives) of Warmu origin, from indigenous Northern Australians Area.

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A few months ago, the museum management decided to return a lintel, a piece of carved wood over a door, to Ngāti Kahungunu.

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“As part of the repatriation process, many Taonga are spending their time in the light… and that’s where they’re doing their work to reconnect us with our people,” O’Regan, who has worked there for three decades, said.

dr  Gerard O'Regan, Curator MÄori at TÅ«hura Otago Museum.

Delivered/Otago Museum

dr Gerard O’Regan, Curator MÄori at TÅ«hura Otago Museum.

“So we shouldn’t look at regression as a moment of loss, but as a moment where we can actually capture and pull together many stories and contexts… and create a moment. ”

The items are more than just artifacts in a museum, but treasures, or taonga, O’Regan said.

“When you start labeling things as ‘treasures,’ or taonga, people have to value them, and it’s about who has a connection to them…who cares about them.”

Sarah Murray, director of collections and research at Canterbury Museum, said the museum has been involved in several repatriations in recent years.

A taiaha, or wooden weapon, returns to its rightful place after being snubbed by politicians nearly 140 years ago.

Otago Museum/Supplied

A taiaha, or wooden weapon, returns to its rightful place after being snubbed by politicians nearly 140 years ago.

In July, it was one of five New Zealand museums that returned Moriori karāpuna (ancestors) to the Hokotehi Moriori Trust (Rēkohu/Chatham Islands) in a national repatriation ceremony at Te Papa Tongarewa.

In May, the museum returned three iwi kūpuna (remains of Hawaiian ancestry) to Hawaii and repatriated tīpuna to Rangitāne in 2009, Rapa Nui in 2018, and Confederate tribes from the Northwest US in 2019.

Active discussions on the repatriation of kōiwi tangata (ancestral remains) and taonga continue, Murray said.

Canterbury Museum discusses the return of artifacts from their past with a Marlborough iwi.  Part of the Wairau Bar collection on display at the museum.

Dean Kozanic/Witness

Canterbury Museum discusses the return of artifacts from their past with a Marlborough iwi. Part of the Wairau Bar collection on display at the museum.

The museum worked closely with Mana Whenua and Ōhākī o Ngā Tīpuna, its iwi advisory group, as well as other New Zealand museums through the Ngākahu National Repatriation Partnership.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the late Maui Pomare was involved in international repatriations as part of his work at the National Museum, resulting in the return of 37 tūpuna (ancestors).

From 1 July 2003 to 1 May 2017, Te Papa repatriated 420 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains from overseas institutions, with an estimated 600 remaining offshore.

In 2020, four toi moko (ancestral heads) were brought back from Germany.

O’Regan said that one of the first significant items to be brought back from the Otago Museum was the Wharenui Mataatua – a fully carved Māori ancestral meeting house that had traveled around the world before spending 70 years in the museum.

In 1983 the Ngāti Awa Trust Board began negotiations for its return, and it was eventually restored and reopened at its Whakatane site in 2011.

Four Toi Moko returned to New Zealand from Germany and were welcomed with a ceremony at Te Papa

Te dad

Four Toi Moko returned to New Zealand from Germany and were welcomed with a ceremony at Te Papa

And the recent items wouldn’t be the last items to be repatriated, as the Otago Museum is in “ongoing discussions” with North Island-based iwi about other important items.

O’Regan said it’s important to see the story behind each Taonga before any meaningful regression can be made.

“Right now our focus is on the Taonga going away, but eventually other Taonga will find their way back here.”

Some repatriation discussions in New Zealand have centered not on artifacts but on ko iwi (ancestral bones).

The museum took the view that if the bones are known to have come from our tribal area, it is our responsibility to take care of them.

And the museum, alongside the Southland and Canterbury Museums, would continue to preserve these ko iwi, which are under the direction of Ngāi Tahu, pending a decision on their future.



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