A MUMMIFIED head, believed to be that of a Maori chief, and held in Warrington Museum for about 170 years, is to be returned to New Zealand.
The head, known as a Toi moko, is believed to have been kept at Warrington since 1843.
How it came to Warrington is a mystery. It was removed from public show in the museum many years ago and carefully stored away.
But Te Papa Tongarewa, one of the national museums of New Zealand, has called for all such artefacts to be repatriated, at their expense, and Warrington Borough council has agreed to return in.
Cllr Kate Hannon, the council’s executive member for culture, said: “We’re proud to have had this Toi moko in Warrington Museum for all this time, and there’s a lot that can be learned from artefacts like this.
“But we think it’s right and proper that the head should be returned to New Zealand.
“Human remains like this are of great cultural importance to the Maoris, and we’re very happy to see to it that the Toi moko is returned to where it came from.”
Museum manager Janice Hayes said: “We don’t know the precise origin of the head. We do know that the Maoris used to preserve severed heads for two reasons – either to venerate a loved one, or to ridicule an enemy defeated in battle.
“But we also know that some Maoris, when they learned that Europeans would pay gold for the old artefacts, began to manufacture more heads for sale.
“In Maori culture the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and male warriors would have an intricate facial tattoo called a moko applied to give it additional sacred powers. After their death their head was smoked and dried in the sun to preserve it and ensure it was still possible to see their unique moko which allowed them to be identified, almost like a finger
print. Because these Toi moko are so sacred to the Maori it is regarded as an insult even to show a photograph of one and the Museum removed the head from public view many years ago.”
The New Zealand museum has indicated
it will want to hold a ceremony at Warrington to thank the museum for its care of the Toi moko before the New Zealand authorities resume custody of it.
It is unlikely to be repatriated until the autumn so the council intends to invite members of the New Zealand and Samoan national rugby league teams to pay their respects to the Toi moko during their visit to the town for the Rugby League World Cup.
Cllr Hannon added: “They’ll be among the last people to visit the Toi moko before it begins its second journey half-way around the world – this time on its way home.”
Pictures: A mask and an engraving of a Maori’s facial tattoo made from life. Because of cultural considerations the Toi moko is not allowed to be put on public display or photographed.