German Museum Foundation to Return Ancestral Remains to Hawaii as Part of Repatriation Efforts

Germany will return dozens of Hawaiian ancestral remains collected by a German naturalist in the 19th century to Hawaiian authorities. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), the body which oversees Berlin’s museums, announced on Monday that the remains of 32 individuals will be handed over on Friday to a representative of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous state agency.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, the head of the OHA delegation who will attend the hand over ceremony in Berlin, said in a statement, “We recognize the anguish of our ancestors and take responsibility for their well-being (and therefore our own) by taking them home for reburial. In doing this important work, we—Germans and Hawaiians—also recognize our respective humanity and celebrate it together in aloha, in mutual affection, as we write a new chapter in our historic relationship as human beings.”

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The remains, known locally as iwi kūpuna or sacred bones, have been housed in the Museum of Prehistory and Early History of the Berlin State Museums since 2011, when they were acquired the collections from Berlin’s Charite hospital. According to the foundation, the bones were gathered by collector and naturalist Hermann Otto Finsch during an expedition to the South Pacific and were sent to back to the German capital, where they became part of the Luschan collection. Provennace research conducted by the State Museums determined that the bones likely originated in a historic burial site called Waimānalo on the island of O’ahu. The museum proposed that the bones were uncovered by strong winds and sea. Two additional skulls came from an unknown burial site in Hawaii, the foundation said.

The SPK and the OHA have been discussing the reparation of the remains since 2017. The SPK has announced plans to send back all human remains in its care from “colonial contexts,” if the countries of origins are known and their return has been requested.

“Human remains from colonial contexts have no place in our museums and universities,” Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, said a statement. “Their return must be a priority.”

The Berlin foundation will also return to Hawaii funerary items taken from several burial caves in the 1800s.


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