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The return of human remains taken from the country is of particular and unique concern to New Zealand because of the large number of preserved Maori heads that were acquired by foreigners prior to 1831. New Zealand has established a program for the return of Maori remains, which is largely administered by its national museum. Through this program, New Zealand has secured the cooperation of over forty foreign museums. New Zealand is a party to international conventions on the return of cultural artifacts and has enacted implementing legislation. The relevant law allows foreign countries to claim culturally significant objects being held in New Zealand and requires governmental permission for culturally significant domestic objects to be exported.

I.    Introduction

New Zealand has a population of approximately 4.2 million persons.[1] Almost eight percent of the population is descended from the indigenous Maori people and about four and one-half percent of the population is composed of other Pacific Islanders, many of whom have immigrated to the country in search of employment over the past thirty years.[2] Although many Maori have moved to the nation’s largest cities, the Maori people still hold significant amounts of land in rural areas.

As a relatively young and small country, New Zealand is not a major repository of cultural property, human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, or sacred objects brought to the country from abroad. Neither individual New Zealanders nor the New Zealand Government and the museums it maintains appear to be in possession of many objects the return of which is highly coveted by other countries. For example, the website for New Zealand’s museums show that they contain very small collections of Old World antiquities and only one Egyptian mummy.[3]

While New Zealand does not hold a large number of foreign cultural objects the return of which is sought by foreign governments or peoples, New Zealand is very active in seeking the return of human remains taken from the country during its colonial period. In New Zealand’s case, the type of remains that have generated the greatest efforts, attention, and response have been preserved heads. These heads are usually tattooed and greatly reduced from normal size. At one time, these heads were commonly displayed in foreign museums as curiosities, but they are now usually kept both within and outside of the country for private inspection or returned to tribal communities for burial in accordance with established customs.

The Maori people of New Zealand speak a common language, but have historically been divided into tribes called iwi. The Government currently recognizes eighty-one separate iwi in the country and has been negotiating land claims with them through a Waitangi Tribunal named after the Treaty of Waitangi signed between the British and Maori in 1840.[4] Many of the iwi are subdivided into smaller groups called hapu. Fighting between different iwi and hapu pre-dated European colonization. In fact, the period just before colonization was a time of intense conflict and is now known as the period of the Maori wars. It appears that during this time, the heads of fallen warriors were preserved by their communities to remember their sacrifice and were used for ceremonial purposes. However, early European visitors and traders eagerly sought these preserved head as souvenirs. Iwi communities then began preserving the severed heads of enemies for bartering. It appears that there was even a gruesome period between 1815 and 1831 during which various iwi “manufactured” preserved heads by making war for the purpose of collecting them or killing slaves and captives for their heads.[5] Trade in preserved heads was banned by the British government in 1831.[6]

While most of the preserved heads were obtained through bartering, some were also taken by British soldiers from Maori villages. Other Maori artifacts were also obtained through trade and pillaging. Grave robbery does not, however, appear to have been a major means of acquiring Maori artifacts, as Maori dead were not usually buried with their treasures or belongings in tombs.[7]

In 2007, a representative of the British Museum visited New Zealand to investigate the attitudes of the Maori people respecting the return of human remains to the country. He found that the people generally welcomed the return of bones, both to the country and their communities, but that there was a wider range of opinion respecting the preserved heads. Many of those interviewed were uncomfortable speaking about the subject and were not sure how returned heads should be received as it is very difficult to know whether any one head was preserved to honor that person, mock an enemy, or for trade.  Nevertheless, most Maori groups seem to believe that the heads should at least be returned to New Zealand even if it is impossible to determine which iwi should handle them once they have been recovered.[8]

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II. Legislation

New Zealand has signed both the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property, signed in Paris in 1970,[9] and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, signed in Rome in 1995.[10] New Zealand’s statute, which implements these two international Conventions, is the Protected Objects Act, 1975.[11] Section 1A of this statute states that its purpose is as follows:

  • To provide for the better protection of certain objects by—
  • (a)  regulating the export of protected New Zealand objects; and
  • (b)  prohibiting the import of unlawfully exported protected foreign objects and stolen protected foreign objects; and
  • (c)  providing for the return of unlawfully exported protected foreign objects and stolen protected foreign objects; and
  • (d)  providing compensation, in certain circumstances, for the return of unlawfully exported protected foreign objects; and
  • (e)  enabling New Zealand’s participation in—
  • (i)    the UNESCO Convention; and
  • (ii)   the UNIDROIT Convention; and
  • (f)   establishing and recording the ownership of ngā taonga tūturu; and
  • (g)  controlling the sale of ngā taonga tūturu within New Zealand[12]

The term ngā taonga tūturu refers to items relating to Maori culture, history, or society.[13]

The first part of the Protected Objects Act requires governmental permission for the export of protected New Zealand objects.[14] The second part of the Act requires that applications for permission to export objects that may be of aesthetic, archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural, historical, literary, scientific, social, spiritual, technological, or traditional value must be reviewed by expert examiners appointed by the government.[15] The third part of the Act provides for the creation of a register of objects which may not be permanently exported.[16]The fourth part of the Act provides for the granting of certificates of permission to export and allows the government to place conditions in the certificates. The fifth part of the Act implements New Zealand’s international commitments by prohibiting the importation of foreign objects illegally exported from participating countries and allows for the filing of claims for their return by Convention members.[17] The sixth part of the Act deals specifically with protected foreign objects that have been stolen from foreign cultural institutions.[18]

The Protected Objects Act also has provisions relating to the return of ngā taonga tūturu to Maori communities. For this purpose, the Maori Land Court is given jurisdiction to decide who should be given custody of remains and property recovered from any Maori burial sites.[19]The law also requires any person who finds Maori remains or artifacts to turn them over to the government.[20]

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III. Funding

New Zealand’s Museums receive governmental appropriations and private donations. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 gives the Board of the national museum (hereinafter referred to as Te Papa) in the capital city of Wellington broad discretion in deciding how it should spend the funds it receives,[21] but operates under a governmental order to develop and implement a repatriation program that was issued in 2003. The program that Te Papa has developed in response to this directive is implemented by the Karanga Aoteroa Repatriation Unit. Under the conforming program adopted by Te Papa, the national museum will pay the following expenses:

  • Crating of the remains;
  • Shipping, freighting, and transportation costs;
  • Expenses incurred by the museum’s representatives; and
  • Burial expenses.[22]

Estimates as to how much has been spent annually by the Repatriation Unit and governmental agencies involved in the repatriation of human remains are not currently available.

Aside from Te Papa, relevant iwi, other museums, Air New Zealand, and a number of government ministries are all involved in the Karanga Aoearoa Repatriation Program. Among the latter are the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the New Zealand Customs Service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Conservation. The four strands of the program are to identify human remains, to negotiate with overseas institutions, repatriation, and the return of remains to a final resting place. Te Papa has a Wananga forum to hear feedback from iwi and a Repatriation Advisory Panel. Remains that have been repatriated but not returned are preserved by Te Papa, but it is not a final resting place. The goal of the program is to return all remains to the relevant iwi.[23]

New Zealand’s repatriation program does not cover Maori remains in foreign war graves.[24] Most New Zealand soldiers killed in World Wars I and II are buried in European graves. These graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.[25]

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IV. Obstacles to Returning Human Remains

Through its Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, Te Papa has been able to recover Maori remains from over forty museums around the world. In 2007, the Field Museum in Chicago became the first United States museum to repatriate Maori ancestral remains. One unusual aspect of this repatriation was that the repatriation delegation was accompanied by seven native American representatives. The Field Museum has stated that “the American Indian Center has developed a close and special relationship with [its] Maori meeting house” known as Ruatepupuke II.[26]

In 2008, the remains of six Maori decedents were repatriated by three Canadian museums.[27]

The country with which Te Papa has had the most protracted and difficult negotiations appears to have been France. In 2007, the Mayor of Rouen announced that the Museum of Natural History in that city would return the tattooed head of a Maori warrior, but he was quickly overruled by the Minister of Culture on the grounds that French law provides that works of art are “inalienable.”[28] However, the current French government has reversed its position and supports the return of more than a dozen mummified Maori heads. The Senate has approved a bill calling for the return of the heads acquired through “barbaric trade” and it has been sent to the National Assembly for debate.[29] The major French objections to the return of the Maori heads appear to have been based on a fear that it might set a precedent for claims for Egyptian mummies, Asian treasures, and African artifacts. The heads have not been on display for a number of years, but some have argued that destroying them by returning them for burial would “erase a page of history.”[30]

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V. Conclusion

Since World War II, the Government of New Zealand has paid increasing attention to the concerns of the Maori people. One desire of the Maori people is that human Maori remains taken out of the country prior to 1831 should be returned to New Zealand. Most of the remains held by foreign museums and other parties are in the form of preserved heads. New Zealand is a party to two international conventions that call for the return of culturally significant remains and artifacts taken during colonial times and it has established a repatriation program that is largely administered by the national museum with the assistance of governmental agencies. The government hopes to return all repatriated remains to the appropriate Maori community, but the task of identifying which iwi a particular preserved head or body part came from is difficult. Many Maori are uncomfortable with this chapter in their history.

New Zealand has met its international commitments by enacting legislation that implements the Conventions it has ratified. This legislation aims to not only provide protection for objects of national significance, but also create a mechanism that allows treaty partners to claim objects of national significance to them.

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Prepared by Stephen F. Clarke
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
July 2009

[1] Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook: New Zealand, available at publications/ the-world-factbook/geos/NZ.html.

[2]  Id.

[4] Lissant Bolton, British Museum, Repatriation Request From Karanga Aotearoa (Repatriation Unit), Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand): Report on Discussions held in New Zealand 108 (Sept. 27, 2007), available at

[5] Id. at 111.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 109.

[8] Id. at 112.

[9] Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, signed Nov. 14, 1970, entered into force Apr. 24, 1972, 96 Stat. 2329, 823 U.N.T.S. 231, available at URL_SECTION=201.html.

[10] UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, June 24, 1995, registered with the U.N. Mar. 31, 2007, No. 43718, available at

[12] Id. § 1A.

[13] Id. § 2.

[14] Id. §§ 5-7A.

[15] Id. §§ 7B-7E.

[16] Id. §§ 7F-7G.

[17] Id. §§ 10A-10C.

[18] Id. §§ 5-10.

[19] Id. § 11.

[20] Id.

[21] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, 1992 N.Z. Stat. No. 19, § 9, as amended, available at resel&p=1#dlm260204.


[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] The Field Museum, Repatriation of Maori Human Remains, pacific-web/Home/partnerships/repatriation.

[27] Government of Canada, Canadian-Held Maori Remains Repatriated to New Zealand, July 10, 2008,

[28] Elaine Sciolino, French Debate: Is Maori Head Body Part or Art?, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 26, 2007, available at

[29] Barbaric Mummy Trade: Return of Heads Backed, GOLD COAST BULLETIN (Australia), July 1, 2009, section B.

[30]Sciolino, supra note 28.

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Last Updated: 06/09/2015