When sending them back where they came from is a good thing

I spent a wonderful couple of hours on Wednesday at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, doing my bit for the repatriation of cultural artefacts.

The artefact in question is an ornate feather cloak gifted by the Maori Wairau Pa (tribe) of South Island, NZ to my great great grandfather, Dr George Cleghorn MD. Those present were me, my mother (who is Cleghorn’s great granddaughter) and Dr Lorraine Eade of the Tokomaru Research Centre, Blenheim, NZ, who is the great granddaughter of the woman who crafted the cloak in the first place. I hadn’t realised how moving the occasion would be. Lorraine was on the verge of tears as she opened the proceedings with a karakia – a Maori incantation for blessing.

Cleghorn was an official Good Egg of the British Empire. He helped the Pa in their dealings with the Europeans and gave a lot of medical help and advice, like the importance of boiling water. Ill Maoris were expected to attend a hospital 17 kilometres away, while Europeans could use the local one. If a Maori turned up at the local one, they were turned away. Cleghorn put a stop to this and allowed them to be treated locally, especially during a typhoid epidemic, despite reprimands from his superiors.

The cloak is just one of the many honours the Wairau Pa gave him. The cloak itself was gifted to him on his retirement. What he might not have gathered was that as part of the Maori culture, such gifts are eventually returned. What with moving back to England, illness, remarriage, dying and the outbreak of World War 1, contact was lost. His widow loaned the cloak to the Pitt Rivers.

The first we heard of this was when New Zealand relatives came to visit in the late nineties. “Oh, Ben [or more like, “Ow, Bin”], you live in Oxford, go and find the cloak.” That bit wasn’t too hard: I went to the PRM and there it was in the feathered cloaks section. However, back in 1998 the museum wasn’t having any of this giving it back thing, taking the (not unreasonable) line that even though the tag on the cloak says “lent by Mrs Cleghorn”, an unclaimed loan after 90 years is pretty well a gift in its own right. But the upside was that contact with the Maoris was restored. And now, a generation later, the atmosphere is very different when it comes to cultural artefacts. It’s an exquisite piece of workmanship, so can be used to teach young Maoris a traditional craft as well as their own history, and of course it symbolises co-operation between the European and Maori communities. There are still hurdles to overcome, but a lot of that revolves around making absolutely sure it will go to a better home when, not if, it is repatriated. (Cleghorn, I’m sorry to say, draped it over his piano.) It would have been simpler if it was just a straightforward case of looting.

Watch this space …