Exchanging the inalienable
The politics and practice of repatriating human remains from Museum and Maori tribal perspectives

Exchanging the inalienable: The politics and practice of repatriating human remains from Museum and Maori tribal perspectives Jørgensen, Helle ENG 315 K
(Incl. images)

This thesis takes up for analysis the controversial topic of the repatriation of human remains from museums to indigenous peoples. Connected with a global cultural and political resurgence of indigenous peoples in recent decades, this complex issue is increasingly made subject to international debate, effecting changes in museum policies and practice. Aiming to elucidate logics and experiences that operate in a growing issue of museum and indigenous politics of culture that is global in scale and implies multiple actors and localities, the present study investigates how the repatriation of human remains is perceived and practiced in museum and Maori tribal contexts, and which meanings the remains and their repatriation acquire in this process.

Focusing especially on the circulation of Maori preserved heads, which in the historical course of contact between Europeans and Maori people entered a peculiar process of commoditisation and collection, this study draws on a theoretical perspective focusing on the social life of things. Emphasising that in order to grasp the cross-cultural trajectories of the remains, their value must be understood not as inherent, but as a judgement made by the various actors that handle them, this approach investigates the biographies that the remains may be said to acquire in the course of their history. This reveals the classificatory schemes and values prevalent in the historical and social contexts that the remains pass through. Thus, methodologically the study explores the trajectories and social significance of the Maori human remains from collection to repatriation.

Grasping the entanglement of local and global concerns and practices that manifest themselves in the quest for repatriation requires multisited ethnography. Thus, fieldwork for the present thesis has been carried out in several localities, encompassing Maori tribes as well as museum institutions both within and outside of New Zealand, complemented by analysis of the historical processes of collecting that led to the current situation. It is argued that in order to understand present claims and developments in the field of repatriation, the long-term social dynamics of the situation concerning Maori human remains in museums need to be traced, which necessitates a focus on the ethnography of collecting, as a means of historicizing present debates. Therefore, the study is grounded in a historical analysis of the processes that lead to the dispersal of preserved heads and other Maori human remains to collections across the world.

Within recent decades, the presence of human remains in collections has increasingly been criticised, prompting museums to consider and navigate increasingly conflicting institutional obligations concerning the management and possession of such remains. To explore the considerations and processes that come into play in a present-day international negotiation of repatriation, a case concerning the repatriation of a preserved Maori head from the National Museum of Denmark is analysed. It is argued that from the perspective of both the museum and Maori claimants, such human remains can be perceived as inalienable possessions. Such possessions, kept out of ordinary social exchange, attain value as objects that define the owners’ identity in a historical sense. Doubly inalienable, the contested remains are thus in a paradoxical situation, further accentuated by their ambiguous ethical and classificatory status as both collection items and remains of human beings. The analysis follows the museum’s attempt to balance the two forms of inalienability, as the preserved head comes to be perceived as symbolic of relations between people, finally being repatriated upon Maori claims, demonstrating a perception of ultimate inalienability accruing to the culture of origin. In analysing this process, it is demonstrated that repatriation may be theorised as an exchange phenomenon, in which social relations and identities are negotiated.

The investigation of the international repatriation case is followed up by a discussion of the context to which such Maori human remains return as they are repatriated, namely the practices and concerns surrounding the major museum institutions of New Zealand. Within the National Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa, and Auckland War Memorial Museum – Te Papa Whakahiku, the repatriation of Maori human remains is now tied up with the constitution of institutional legitimacy, as the relationship with Maori tribes is increasingly conceptualised according to an ideal of reciprocity and perpetuation of Maori cultural practice. In the context of New Zealand as a postcolonial nation with bicultural aspirations, the repatriation and culturally appropriate management of collected Maori human remains has become a significant matter of recognising Maori and redressing colonial history. This also renders repatriation a controversial and politicised topic, but in spite of practical difficulties, the large museum institutions of New Zealand now make diligent research efforts towards determining the provenance of the collected Maori human remains, with a view to make final repatriation to the descendant communities possible.

In the New Zealand museum context, Maori human remains have thus recently come to be perceived as inalienable to their descendants. This prompts the question of what sort of significance such remains and their return have in a contemporary Maori tribal context. To this purpose, perspectives in Maori tribes from the region of Te Tai Tokerau (Northland) are investigated. The quest for repatriation is here placed in the context of current cultural concerns and attitudes to the treatment of the dead, as well as historical memory and ways of relating to the past. It is demonstrated that the symbolic and social significance of repatriation is motivated both by forces of cultural continuity, and by modern concerns relating to the politics of culture and history in a postcolonial context.

In conclusion, the topic of repatriation is emphasised as a field that holds a great potential for further anthropological inquiries into the constitution of social identities, values and relationships, and the dynamics of exchange in a global context. As an issue of growing symbolic significance and social relevance to the implied actors in museum institutions and tribes, as well as in wider societal debate, repatriation reveals itself as a prism that both reflects and participates in the constitution of multiple historically and culturally mediated relationships, rendering it a privileged field of investigation.