Our Museums

National Museums NI repatriates Hawaiian ancestral human remains and sacred objects

Hawaiian ancestral human remains and sacred objects have been returned at an official ceremony in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

Representatives with sacred Hawaiian objects on a table during a repatriation ceremony in Ulster Museum
Ulster Museum
Date published
Read time

Following ongoing dialogue with Native Hawaiian descendants and researchers and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, National Museums NI hosted an official handover ceremony at Ulster Museum last week and successfully repatriated ancestral Hawaiian human remains, iwi kūpuna, and sacred objects, mea kapu, which were part of the museum's World Cultures collection.

The repatriation process involved a private ceremony followed by a public ceremony at Ulster Museum. Hawaiian representatives, National Museums NI colleagues and delegates from the United States Embassy were in attendance.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board Chair, Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey said:

“The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea kapu to this delegation of Native Hawaiians, so that they may be returned home to their final resting place, is an act of compassion and understanding that is much needed and long overdue.”

Following extensive research into the provenance of each of the materials, it is believed that Mr. Gordon Augustus Thomson, who had travelled to Hawai’i Island in 1840, had removed iwi kūpuna from burial caves and donated these iwi kūpuna to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1857. The material was included in a 1910 donation to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, a precursor to National Museums NI.

Kathryn Thomson, Chief Executive of National Museums NI said:

“National Museums NI believes it has legal and ethical responsibilities to redress the injustices shown to Native Hawaiian cultural values and traditions, and so through ongoing dialogue, it was agreed that these iwi kūpuna and mea kapu should be returned by repatriation to the Native Hawaiians through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a self-governing corporate body of the State of Hawai’i. 

“We are re-evaluating our World Cultures Collection on an ongoing basis, to better understand the complex global stories of some 4,500 items – and how and why they came to be in Belfast. We understand and respect cultural values, and are in ongoing liaison with source communities and their representatives to establish if items within the collection can and should be returned to their ancestral homes. We remain open to further repatriations as these engagements develop.

“Whilst the motivation behind the acquisition of ethnological material can appear strange today, it reflected curiosity about the wider world and a desire to represent diverse cultures in Belfast.  However, the European bias and power imbalances that often characterised this collecting leave a complex and sensitive legacy for us to address today.”

The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea kapu has great significance on a cultural level for the people of Hawai’i. The five mea kapu are considered sacred by Native Hawaiians and incorporate either human hair, bone, or teeth. The use of human remains was done purposefully and with meaning to infuse objects with mana, spiritual power. The hook necklaces were traditionally provided to aliʻi, chiefs, and displayed around the neck to show a connection between the chiefly class and akua, gods. The bracelet and fan intertwined with human hair were reserved for aliʻi and used only during ceremonies rather than everyday use.

In modern times, Hawaiian leaders and cultural practitioners still revere the use of such objects and typically only adorn or use them during ceremony. The fan in particular, is one of a very few early 19th century styles not typically available to Native Hawaiians today for ceremony, due to their rarity.