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Two Toi Moko from the Collections of the Ethnological Museum to be Returned to New Zealand

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

The Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin contains two mummified heads of facially tattooed Maori men (Toi moko). The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), which oversees the Ethnologisches Museum, will return them to New Zealand.

In autumn 2019 the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington requested the return of the two Toi moko, which have been in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum since 1879 and 1905.

Moko means tattoos in Maori. In former times the heads of prominent Maori, who always had ritual tattoos, were embalmed after death and preserved by their relatives, thus becoming Toi moko. Tattooed Maori heads became coveted collector’s items during the colonial period in the 19th century. European demand led to a trade in heads, especially those of slaves and prisoners of war, who were tattooed and killed for that market. This process resulted in the desecration of the Toi moko. Te Papa was commissioned in 2003 by the New Zealand government to repatriate Maori human remains.

Alexis von Poser, deputy director of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin says, “The Ethnologisches Museum welcomes the fact that two Toi moko can be returned to Aotearoa (New Zealand). It is of great concern to us to send the remains of the ancestors back home.”

The SPK Board of Trustees has now given its approval, so an agreement on the reparation of the Toi moko can be concluded. Te Papa will organise the reparation together with the SPK as soon as possible.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK, comments, “Toi moko have already been repatriated from many museums worldwide – which demonstrates the impressive work of Te Papa. I am glad that through the return we, too, are able to take steps towards healing the injustice committed, even if we cannot reverse it.”