Special delegation visits Sheffield for skull repatriation

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Staff from Museums Sheffield welcomed counterparts from the other side of the globe to Weston Park Museum yesterday as part of a special ceremony to mark the official repatriation of a Māori or Moriori skull to New Zealand.

Delegates from The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), New Zealand’s national museum, were greeted by Museums Sheffield’s Chief Executive, Kim Streets, Chair of the Trustees, John Cowling and Head of Collections, Sian Brown, as well as representatives from the region including the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire. Led by Te Herekiekie Herewini, Repatriation Manager at Te Papa Tongarewa and Ms Hema Temara, Te Papa’s Maori cultural practice adviser, the ceremony acknowledged Māori ancestors with traditional greetings, songs and chants, while speeches from representatives from both New Zealand and Sheffield marked the formal handover.

Sheffield’s museum service became custodians of the skull when it was donated to Weston Park Museum in 1929. Little was known about its origin until 2013, when staff at Museums Sheffield began an audit of parts of the city’s historic collections. The Museum’s Archaeology curators worked closely with Human Osteology staff from the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield to determine the provenance of the skull using specialist CranID statistical analysis software. The findings demonstrated that there was a 96% likelihood that the skull was of Māori or Moriori origin, enabling staff at Museums Sheffield to approach Te Papa to explore options for repatriation.

Many national, regional and university museums across the UK hold examples of human remains as part of the historical collections in their care. Over the past 25 years, museums have participated in programmes of repatriation, with a formal scheme set up by Te Papa in 2003. Te Papa has since returned over 400 Māori and Moriori ancestors to New Zealand, working with institutions including National Museums of Wales, the National Museums of Scotland, and shortly the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

Sian Brown, Head of Collections at Museums Sheffield said: “Like museums services around the world, Museums Sheffield cares for a significant historic collection established in the 1800s. Today, museums have a very different approach to collecting, governed by rigorous acquisition policies as well as ethical guidelines from the Museums Association. Collaborating with Te Papa on the repatriation has allowed us to forge new relationships with colleagues on the other side of the globe.”

Te Herekiekie Herewini, Repatriation Manager at Te Papa said: “We appreciate the active and rigorous approach made by Museums Sheffield to ensure the ancestral remains are returned to the right place. We acknowledge our ancestors were taken to be scientific specimens and exhibition artefacts, however, through this collaboration our ancestors will return with respect and dignity, and with their spirit finally resting amongst their kith and kin.”