Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Te Papa holds ghoulish relics too

Te Papa has asked foreign museums to return toi moko to New Zealand, but has not suggested it will send Lady Mehit home to Egypt. Photo / Supplied
Te Papa has asked foreign museums to return toi moko to New Zealand, but has not suggested it will send Lady Mehit home to Egypt. Photo / Supplied

Over the past decade, Te Papa's headhunters have been steadily working their way through a list of 120 institutions - mainly European museums - seeking the repatriation of toi moko.

They are the mummified heads that flowed out of New Zealand as ghoulish souvenirs in the early 19th century.

In recent days they've been celebrating the success of their latest sweep through Europe, resulting in the return of heads and other Maori human remains from Rouen in France, Norway, Sweden and Germany.

The hypocrisy is, these retrieved relics will be brought back to the Wellington waterfront national museum to share basement space with lonely Lady Mehit, the trophy of an equally ghoulish trade in human exotica.

She's an Egyptian mummy, stolen from her 2300-year-old burial site at the Temple of Min's cemetery in Akhmim about the same time as the Maori heads went on the market. She was taken for much the same reason, to meet the lust in colonising Europe, for trophies from the outer reaches of the empire.

If Te Papa is now on a crusade to right past wrongs, how can it justify the continuing retention of Lady Mehit, trapped far from her turangawaewae.

No doubt the "gifting" museums have resisted the temptation to raise the H for hypocrite word in conversation with Te Papa when it came knocking, for fear they may have to confront the question of their own mummy collections.

But as leader of the crusade, that's hardly an excuse our national museum can hide behind. If the human remains of indigenous New Zealanders deserve respect and repatriation, then why not those of the Egyptian "first people".

It's ironic that in its online YouTube series, Tales from Te Papa, the museum uses a Maori presenter, Riria Hotere, to relate the tale of their Egyptian mummy.

"We're about to meet a woman who has been on duty at the museum for close to 100 years. Which is a long time, even if you're a 2300-year-old mummy," she says.

We're told that "the young lady Mehit is a long time companion for collections manager, Ross O'Rourke".

Mr O'Rourke tells us that for years everyone thought she was a chap. But an x-ray sorted that out.

Standing alongside him is a life-sized x-ray portrait of her to prove his point.

The clip ends with Ms Hotere declaring "she's become quite delicate. Also, we're a bit more careful about human remains", so the last time her coffin went on display, "her body remained in storage. For now, she's catching her breath".

Now perhaps the Egyptians don't want their mummies back, though given the ceaseless campaign by other neighbouring looted nations, that seems hard to believe.

Certainly the great museums of former imperial capitals like London, Berlin and Paris don't enjoy the pot being stirred. But with Te Papa taking the lead, surely it's time they put their own house in order.

Unlike the toi moko, we actually know who Lady Mehit was. The hieroglyphics on her coffin suggest her father was a priest of the fertility God Min and her mother a singer in the temple. Mehit was married to a man named Nes-Min.

With the toi moko, the only clue to identity or place of origin is the "school" of tattoo on the face. And that can be misleading. At the height of the trade, once existing Maori shrunken head stocks were sold out, entrepreneurial chiefs met the unrequited demand by tattooing slaves, often with intricate tapu chiefly patterns, then killed and smoked the unfortunate models to order.

Sydney was so awash with heads at one stage that the Governor passed a law outlawing the trade.

The trade in mummies was contemporaneous, triggered by Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798. Europe was soon knee-deep in ye olde Egyptian memorabilia.

The odd piece even reached these shores. Te Papa's mummy was gifted by Charles Rooking Carter in 1885.

Auckland Museum didn't score one until the 1950s, bought from Canterbury Museum to which it had been gifted in 1888 by Julius von Haast, who'd bought it by mail order for $10.

The French senator, Catherine Morin-Desailly, who championed special legislation on Te Papa's behalf to enable the repatriation from France to occur, separates out the New Zealand heads case as special, a response to a demand from contemporary people for the return of human remains that had been "turned into objects of art using very bad, violent and barbaric methods ... the result of the horrible and despicable human trafficking of the time".

The French legislation singled the heads out to ensure a precedent wasn't set, forcing them to have to confront the issues of mummies and other colonial-times "loot". And if that's what it took to get the heads home to New Zealand, then so be it. But it's hard to see how the Te Papa crusaders can push that sort of subterfuge.

Mummies are human remains. They were looted from graves and tombs.

If it's righteous that the heads should be returned to lie in peace on home soil, then Lady Mehit and her kind deserve similar respect.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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