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Repatriation in Practice: A Critical Analysis of the Repatriation of Human Remains in New Zealand Museums

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posted on 12.11.2021, 14:42 by O’Hara, Coralie

The repatriation of human remains from museum collections is becoming increasingly common in museums around the world and particularly in New Zealand. Even the most amicable repatriation cases are complex, requiring a substantial commitment of time, energy and resources from museum staff involved in the negotiation process, to successfully overcome any issues that arise. Although it is known that the repatriation process can be challenging, the literature on the subject in museum studies and related fields focuses on the beneficial outcomes of successful negotiations, rather than explaining what difficulties can be encountered and how they can be solved. This research asks how problems in the repatriation process can be overcome to create mutually rewarding relationships between museums and others involved in the repatriation of human remains. This problem was addressed through a case study of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme at Te Papa and three examples of their work: the Natural History Museum in Rouen, France; the British Museum in London; and the Rangitāne o Wairau iwi in New Zealand. Documentary evidence relating to these three repatriation examples was reviewed and the insights of museum staff have been captured through interviews with professionals from Karanga Aotearoa, Auckland Museum and Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne. Together these methods provided data that presented a more detailed and rounded picture of the current New Zealand situation regarding the repatriation of human remains. The dissertation concludes by assessing the difficulties in the practical repatriation process and how they have been overcome in New Zealand museums. I argue that repatriation practice, as an important area of museum practice in its own right, requires a flexible approach based on the principle of open-minded engagement with the perspectives of others involved in repatriation negotiations. This approach, focusing on relationships rather than transactions, is a marked departure from more traditional museum practice.


Copyright Date


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

Master of Museum and Heritage Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


McCarthy, Conal; Herewini, Te Herekiekie