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Monday, August 12, 2013

Maori head to be repatriated

From the Huffington Post

'A mummified head said to be that of "a South Sea island chief" is to be sent back to New Zealand after more than 150 years in the UK.

'The Maori head, or Toi moko, was brought to Britain in the 1840s and has been kept in Warrington Museum in Cheshire since 1843.

'Today the museum announced it was to be sent back to its motherland due to its "great cultural importance". '

For some reason (say I) this has become a big news item around the world, variously reported.  The illustration is of a plaster cast of the head, which is presumably not as insensitive to have on display as the head itself, which would be very insensitive indeed.

The markings were tattooed, not painted, in the distinctively Maori art of ta moko.  Elsewhere in the Pacific, tattoos were pricked into the skin, but in Aotearoa (New Zealand), they were carved into the skin, much as wood was carved, and in very similar curvilinear patterns. A sharp chisel was the implement, often made of a bird bone with a wooden handle, and this was tapped with a small mallet, so that the point cut right through the skin.  The blood, which flowed freely, was wiped away, and a pigment, made from special soot, was rubbed in.

It was such a painful process that it was not even attempted until the subject had reached maturity -- and, indeed, was a sign of maturity.  Only a small part of the moko was created at one time, as the agony and swelling were so great.  When the lips and cheeks were tattooed they swelled up so much that the subject had to be fed through a special funnel.

The appalling mokomokai trade in preserved Maori heads was begun by Joseph Banks, who forced a Queen Charlotte Sound chief to sell the head of a fourteen-year-old boy, first by bribing him with a pair of old white drawers, and then "shewing Him a musquet" when the old man tried to escape without giving up the head.

Why Europeans would want to collect such things is a mystery, but over the first three decades of the nineteenth century hundreds of preserved tattooed heads were sold to captains and explorers, and carted off to Europe and North America.  Recently, there has been a campaign to repatriate to New Zealand the hundreds of mokomokai held in museums and private collections around the world, either to be returned to their relatives or to Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand -- for storage and certainly not for display.

Bizarrely, the toi moko is to be displayed by the Warrington museum to New Zealand and Samoan rugby league players before repatriation in the autumn.

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