Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
Simon Jean MHST690 PostDefence 2022 Final Version.pdf (2.2 MB)

New Eyes on Curios: The Acquisition and Repatriation of Toi moko between France and New Zealand as a Postcolonial Approach to Museum Practice.

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posted on 2022-03-08, 03:21 authored by Simon Jean

This thesis is concerned with the repatriation of 21 Toi moko or ancestral Māori heads which were returned from France to Aotearoa New Zealand in recent years. The act of repatriation has been widely debated in the museum sector for decades and yet many institutions are still struggling to deal with the practical management of repatriation projects with indigenous peoples. The literature review revealed gaps in research particularly in relation to the current professional practice of repatriation. The questions framing the study include: Can the repatriation process be considered a postcolonial museum practice? How and why is repatriation practice related to the new inclusive museology, international dialogue and partnerships, and the acknowledgement of contemporary Indigenous identities in globalised museum networks?

This research employed a mix of qualitative methods to investigate this topic. In order to explore the acquisition and collection of human remains, archival sources were used to better understand the historical context of the trade and their subsequent donation to museums and scientific institutions in France. Semi structured interviews were conducted in both countries to investigate the current practice and assess the impact on French practitioners of the interaction with Māori and New Zealand museum staff and iwi. Case study methodology was used for analysing the data gathered during fieldwork in France and New Zealand. My personal involvement in the process, from initial negotiations to repatriation ceremonies and various post repatriation projects, led me to apply action research and participant observation. As a non-Māori researcher analysing this sensitive topic, I was also guided by Kaupapa Māori theory.

The findings of the research reveal the varied range of reactions, assumptions, debates, fears and lessons expressed by museum staff, academics, politicians and others as a result of repatriation projects. I argued that these interactions were a form of contact zone which created mutual understanding and ongoing relationships. The thesis has identified key themes that encompass a global, diplomatic approach to repatriation as an integral part of postcolonial museum practice: the evolution of appropriate names for human remains, repatriation from theory into practice, strategies of interaction, methods of (re)connection, recognition of the ethics and dignity of human remains and finally cultural diplomacy.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Museum and Heritage Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Stout Research Centre

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language



McCarthy, Conal; Adds, Peter