What has Austria to do with Aotearoa?

What has Austria to do with Aotearoa?

This was the question posed by Dr Sabine Eggers from the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHMW) at the beginning of her lecture  ‘The return of looted ancestors from Vienna to Aotearoa New Zealand’ at Te Papa on October 6, 2022, after the repatriation powhiri held on October 2nd. This ‘first repatriation to New Zealand from the NHM, and the biggest repatriation from Austria, includes a group of Māori and Moriori ancestors that represent the remains of approximately 64 individuals. Records indicate that 49 of these ancestors were collected by Austrian taxidermist and notorious grave-robber Andreas Reischek who spent 12 years in New Zealand from 1877 to 1889.’

Dr Eggers told us that the museum collected items over the past 200-300 years, and that this included human remains from all over the world. Having such a collection is complicated. At the time of acquisition, possession was justified as being for taxonomic purpose – for describing. Darwin’s book of  evolutionary theory was published in 1859, and is represented on the architecture of the institution by a monkey holding a book, and a baby with a mirror. James Cook also features on this facade. Austria did not have colonies, but did have a wish for colonial power, and, as such, was happy to assist other colonial powers. The issues arising from this legacy are being made very clear now.

Ferdinand Hochstetter, who was the first Director of NHMW in 1876,  travelled here on the Novara, living in New Zealand for two years to explore geology. Instructions to scientists at this time were to ‘get hold of skulls of the various human races’. Andreas  Reischek, whose  ‘human remains collection’ were later donated to the NHMW, looted remains from caves, battle fields and tapu places. His journals recorded what he did,  that he knew that it was wrong, and also dangerous to himself.

The first attempts at repatriation to Aotearoa were made in 1945 by the Maori Battalion, who Kaihautu Dr Arapata Hakiwai recounts as wanting to storm the museum. The Te Papa Repatriation project began in 2003, and Arapata requested provenance research in 2013. In 2017 a repatriation team from Te Papa travelled to visit tīpuna, after which provenance research began in the Biological Anthropology Department. Discussion became more widespread; workshops were held, and Masters students in Colonial Studies became involved in around 2020.

Dr Eggers said that colonialism in Austria’s Museums since 2020 has seen much more visibility in the press, and support from Museum directors. She concluded her part of the panel discussion that followed the lecture by saying that so many people were involved in the past ‘crime ring’ in the name of science, and that apology is needed. These remains mean far more today to their people than they ever could have to science. She is now travelling this country meeting hapu, working to ensure ongoing relationships. They want to discover which iwi were affected by looting from as yet unknown places, and to discover which iwi were affected by Reischek and other peoples lootings. Te Papa staff will continue to work with the Austrian government to develop the guidelines required for them, and Europe, to address the remediation’s resulting from the colonial period.

Austria’s Minister for Arts and Culture, Juergen Meindl, acknowledged the hurt caused by the theft. “We deeply regret the disrespectful and unjustified treatment of your ancestors,” he said.

Image: Courtesy of Te Papa.

‘Te Papa welcomed home Māori and Moriori ancestral remains, repatriated from the Natural History Museum, Vienna’.


Sharon Taylor-Offord