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Toi moko from the Ethnologisches Museum return to New Zealand

13.10.2020

A ceremony was held today at the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin to prepare the mummified heads (Toi moko) of two tattooed Māori heads for their repatriation to New Zealand. The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) had decided to return them earlier this year.

The ceremony was conducted by Mr. Te Arikirangi Mamaku, the coordinator of the repatriation program of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Also present was the Ambassador of New Zealand, H.E. Mr. Rupert Holborow. Te Papa has been commissioned by the New Zealand government since 2003 to repatriate the ancestral remains of Māori. 

The Toi Moko from the Ethnologisches Museum

The heads that will return to New Zealand are called Toi moko. "Moko" is the Māori term for tattoos that have been carved into the skin. The concept associated with “Toi” includes the origin and source of humanity, with the added dimension of reaching the highest pinnacle of artistic achievement. Toi moko is a contemporary Māori term, and used in reference to these Māori ancestral remains, to offer them dignity and respect, despite the circumstances of their acquisition and trade.

High-ranking members of Māori society often sought moko to be placed on them. For hundreds of years, the heads of deceased high-ranking chiefs and warriors were prepared and preserved by their relatives and thus became Toi moko. Toi moko were sought-after collector's items in the 19th century. Due to the European demand, a new-kind of trade developed, and slaves or prisoners of war were tattooed and killed specifically for this purpose. Through this process the Toi moko were desecrated. Against this background, the SPK decided to repatriate the Toi moko, regardless of the specific circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the Toi moko, which entered the museum in 1879 and 1905.

The names of the deceased tūpuna (ancestors), their fate and the exact way the two Toi moko came to Europe is unknown. The documents of the Ethnologisches Museum show that one Toi moko (Inv. No. VI 2559) was acquired for the museum in London in 1879 by Fedor Jagor, an amateur ethnologist. The other Toi moko (Inv. No. VI 23649) was donated to the museum in 1905 by Hermann Meyer, a widely travelled publisher and geographer who, however, never visited Oceania. Neither Fedor Jagor nor Hermann Meyer brought the Toi moko to Europe. After their return to New Zealand, the Toi moko will remain in the dedicated sacred Māori repository at Te Papa, while further research is being conducted into their exact place of origin.

About the ceremony and its elements

The ceremony took place in the foyer of the Dahlem museums. Key elements of Māori traditions were blended with western traditions suitable for the occasion. Further adjustments had to be made due to the protection measures against COVID-19, for example the songs were performed with masks.

The ceremony began with a karanga, a traditional Māori call of the women to pay tribute to the ancestors (tūpuna). The tūpuna were gently carried into the ceremonial room in boxes, carefully placed on a table and covered with black cloth. Karakia (ancient prayers or incantations) were recited to acknowledge the homeward journey of the ancestors, and to secure their safety. This was followed by a formal mihi (speech) in Māori, which acknowledged the ancestors, the hosts and the occasion, and a waiata (sung poetry). After the speeches by Hermann Parzinger, Lars-Christian Koch (director of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst) and H.E. Mr. Rupert Holborow Hermann Parzinger and Mr. Te Arikirangi Mamaku signed the handover agreement. Another waiata, performed by the entire New Zealand delegation, followed and the ceremony was concluded.