‘Rage, but also joy and completeness’: bringing New Zealand’s stolen ancestors home

The remains of Māori people taken by an Austrian taxidermist in 1877 and displayed in a Vienna museum have finally been returned

On the shorelines of Wellington, the sound of weeping poured out into the thick mist of the city harbour. A procession moved in slow, measured steps. Their heads were bowed and crowned with ferns. At the centre of the group walked 64 people, each cradling a beige cardboard box.

Inside those boxes are the remains of their ancestors, stolen in secret from their graves and kept for more than a century in a Viennese museum. The battle for their return has taken 77 years of negotiations, entreaties and diplomacy. At the ceremony on Sunday, each ancestor was carried inside, placed at the entrance to the marae (meeting house) and gently covered by woven blankets and feathered cloaks. The crowd sang, cried and laughed.

“There’s a whole range of emotion from anger, contempt, rage,” says kaihautū Dr Arapata Hakiwai. “But [also] absolute joy and connection and completeness. Because the ancestors have come home.”

Andreas Reischek
Andreas Reischek, an Austrian taxidermist who stole the remains of 49 people from sacred Māori burial sites. Photograph: Alexander Turnbull Library

Grave robbing

The story of how they were stolen has taken decades to fully unravel. Its key figure is Andreas Reischek, an Austrian taxidermist who arrived in New Zealand in 1877. He enthusiastically engaged with indigenous Māori and Moriori, winning the trust of the Māori king Tāwhiao and permission to roam freely through land.

Reischek spent the years that followed carefully locating and surveilling the most sacred sites of his hosts. In secret, he dug up skulls, human remains and treasures from their graves, tucked them into rucksacks, and smuggled them back to Europe to put on display. Reischek was not a blithe offender: in diaries recounting his time in New Zealand he discusses the lengths he took to evade his hosts, as well as how immense the violation was in Māori culture.

“Went to the east coast where we dug out some Māori skulls … [my companion] said that if the Māori find out we have skulls in our backpacks they would kill us, I replied he should let me handle that. Took all skulls,” he writes in one entry. Robbing the graves, he muses elsewhere, “is one of the most difficult tasks, because all these places are tapu, holy, and no one is allowed to enter them, without being noticed by the locals, early morning to evening, especially when they’re mistrusting,” he says. “These places are sacred and the sinner would be punished with death.” All in all, Reischek took the remains of 49 people, proudly shipping them back to Europe to exhibit. Despite an initial lack of interest from Austrian museums, they eventually found their way to the Natural History Museum in Vienna, along with other remains from a handful of other explorers.

It would be years before most of the tribes discovered the crime, with many finding out only when Reischek’s son began translating and publishing fragments of his diaries in 1930. The pain was acute, says Hakiwai: “the sheer trauma and shock and grief of knowing that and then sort of coming to terms with it”. For Māori, ancestors are not relics of the past – they must remain close by, revered, forming an unbroken connection between past and present. “The word that we use for our past is ‘mua’,” he says. “But mua also means ‘ahead’. You get a sense: our past is actually in front of us. Our ancestors are connected with us.”

Almost immediately, iwi (tribes) began calling for their ancestors’ return. In 1945, as the Māori battalion fought on behalf of the allies in the second world war, they tried unsuccessfully to approach the museum to bring their ancestors home. Decades of repatriation requests were turned down or ignored.

In 2017 the museum’s stance finally began to shift. When the repatriation team visited Vienna that year to again request their return, Prof Sabine Eggers had just started there as head of the international collection. The conversation, she says, had a profound effect. “I somehow had the feeling: now I’ve been given a mission.”

The scene inside the marae
Each ancestor was carried inside, placed at the entrance to the marae and gently covered by woven blankets and feathered cloaks. Photograph: Te Papa

Eggers began research to discover the provenance of human remains and other artefacts in the collection. She assembled a team to rake through 1,500 pages of Reischek’s scrawled, at times unintelligible journals to found out what he had done, and where. “We were able to get 1,500 pages of diaries – in horrible handwriting, horrible grammar and so on. We said, ‘OK, let’s let’s see what he himself wrote about it,’” she said. “This is painstaking work – it’s unimaginable how much effort and time it costs.” In 2020 a formal repatriation request was made again. This time it was granted.

Sabine Eggers holds an inventory record relating to one of the ancestral remains taken by Andreas Reischek
Sabine Eggers holds an inventory record relating to one of the ancestral remains taken by Andreas Reischek. Photograph: Christina Rittmansberger/Natural History Museum Vienna

This week Eggers was there to witness the remains’ return to their families at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, which heads up its repatriation program. “It has been far too long,” she said, offering an apology for the hurt caused. “For me, it’s something scientists should apologise in general – for doing these things in the name of science.”

‘We hear our ancestors crying out to be returned’

The latest repatriation is the largest to take place from Austria but it is one of many that the New Zealand government has been pushing for. In the early 1800s there was a swift trade in Māori remains, particularly tattooed and mummified heads, and up until the 1970s the ancestral remains of Māori and Moriori were traded as curiosities or objects of scientific interest. Today New Zealand is at the forefront of global efforts to repatriate human remains, with a government-mandated team working full-time to bring stolen ancestors home. They have successfully negotiated more than 600 returns – but say there is still a long way to go.

“We believe that our ancestors are not resting in peace while behind the glass cabinets and in vaults in institutions overseas,” says Sir Pou Temara, the repatriation advisory panel chair. “We find that repugnant. We hear our ancestors crying out to be returned to New Zealand, and we could feel the satisfaction that they have, in knowing that they were being transported back to where they can rest in peace.”

Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside, acting head of repatriation, says: “Aotearoa is very, very lucky to have a government-funded program that specifically addresses reconciliation through repatriating ancestral human remains. That’s not a luxury that a lot of Indigenous communities have.”

By investing heavily in building relationships with overseas institutions to argue for their ancestors’ return, they hope to also clear a path for other Indigenous communities to do the same.

“They look to us as a glimmer of hope, Temara says, “for the repatriation of their people in the land that they have grown up in.”

There is a growing international movement to repatriate Indigenous human remains from international museums.

Many museums built collections believing that the cultures and societies they were documenting were on the verge of extinction, Hakiwai says. Now, they find themselves increasingly confronted by the descendants of those they stole from. “I think it is really an issue for museums: that they don’t acknowledge that there are living and real connections and relationships that exist between the treasures held in these museums, and certainly the ancestral remains, [connections] that are still living in us.

“I can’t see how museums can actually embark in the future unless they really confront and own their past.”


Tess McClure in Wellington

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