Maori heads and skulls, which have been held in museums and private collections overseas for more than a century, are finally coming back to New Zealand.

The remains of 60 Maori and Moriori, including a 7-year-old child's skull, are being repatriated from across the US and Britain and will be welcomed on to Te Papa's marae on May 27.

It will be the second-biggest repatriation of remains in Te Papa's history after the 107 human remains that were repatriated from the American Museum of Natural History in 2014.

In the latest repatriation case, the biggest cache of ancestral remains comes from the world-famous Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.


It includes the ancestral remains of 12 Moririoi with provenance to Rekohu, or the Chatham Islands, with another 38 identified as Maori ancestral remains, plus four toi moko or mummified tattooed Maori heads.

Te Papa Kaihautu (Maori co-leader) Dr Arapata Hakiwai said the collections date back to a dark time.

From the 1840s to 1910, thousands of heads, skulls, skeletons and bones of indigenous Maori and Moriori were taken from New Zealand by European and American anthropologists, with many ending up in museums or private collections.

"These were dark days, when these tupuna (ancestors) were traded, collected and stolen, but today we have the opportunity to put right the mistakes of the past," Dr Hakiwai said.

"These are not easy discussions, and we are very grateful to all the institutions, who have shown great sensitivity and respect to reach this milestone with us."

In 1930, a Freemasons lodge in England was given a single Maori skull along with two crossbones.

Records show they were found in a cave near Okere, Bay of Plenty.

Now, the Metropolitan Grand Chapter London has agreed to repatriate them.

A skull believed to have been taken from Waikouaiti in Otago, was donated to the Falconer Museum in Forres, Scotland, in 1883, by a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, John Hugh McKenzie, via a Mrs Edmonds, Carisbrook, Blackheath.

Falconer Museum, founded in 1871 in memory of Hugh Falconer, a colleague of Charles Darwin, has stored the skull as part of their large ethnographic collection for more than 130 years.

It will be handed over to Te Papa representatives next week after local councillors agreed to its repatriation.

The 7-year-old child's skull, without its lower jaw, is being returned by Beneski Museum, Massachussetts, while Sheffield Museum in England is sending back one adult Maori or Moriori skull.