Memory Waka

Memory Connection Journal

Current Journal

Previous Journals


The exploitation, repatriation, and memorialisation of human remains: An artist’s experiences

Kingsley Baird



In recent years I have been invited by the Hokotehi Moriori Trust of Rēkohu
(Chatham Islands or Wharekauri) to develop concept designs for a memorial to
house the skeletal remains of repatriated karāpuna Moriori (Moriori ancestors
indigenous to Rēkohu). From the second half of the nineteenth century, Moriori
remains were taken from their homeland and distributed widely in museum and
private collections around the world, including The Natural History Museum
in London and New Zealand museums. In the context of a repatriation and
reconciliation ceremony at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 2022,
The Natural History Museum’s director Dr Doug Gurr acknowledged: “[r]espect
and responsibility towards the remains of the deceased are important for us all,
and we understand the importance of the return of the ancestors to the care of
their communities as part of a process of healing and reconciliation.”

Involvement in this repatriation project has led me to reflect upon my
experiences with human skeletons and, most particularly, skulls. Coincidently,
the use of a human skull – in my possession for about 45 years – as an anatomical
reference in a current work, has reignited for me ethical issues regarding
guardianship of human remains. This article discusses my personal experiences
with human skeletal remains in relation to historical and contemporary
conventions concerning their use in cultural contexts. These experiences include
being the designer of the tomb of New Zealand’s unknown warrior, witnessing
the exhumation of a soldier from a First World War battlefield in Belgium,
encountering a suicide exhibit in Germany’s military history museum in Dresden,
and reflections on the use of human skulls by artists exhibiting at the Tate
Modern in the 21st century.

In July 2022 I attended a repatriation and reconciliation ceremony at Museum
of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. During this event, the museum received
111 Kōimi T’chakat Moriori (Moriori skeletal remains) and two Māori ancestral
remains from London’s Natural History Museum, along with the remains of
almost 200 karāpuna (Moriori ancestors) from New Zealand museums.¹
From the mid-1860s extensive illicit collection, trade, and research saw Moriori
skeletal remains from Rēkohu (Chatham Islands or Wharekauri) end up in
museum and private collections on the mainland of Aotearoa New Zealand and
internationally.² Currently, Te Papa cares for repatriated ancestral remains with
provenance to Rēkohu, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean located 800 kilometres
east of New Zealand’s South Island and home to the Moriori people for at least
800 years. It is intended that the remains of karāpuna Moriori will be returned to
Rēkohu to be placed in a memorial for which the Hokotehi Moriori Trust invited
me to develop concept designs.

A memorial to karāpuna Moriori is not the first time I have been involved in a
repatriation project, nor designed a final resting place for human remains.
In 2004 I was commissioned to design a tomb for New Zealand’s unknown
warrior. That year, the remains of a First World War soldier were disinterred from
Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in France, and returned to New Zealand to be reburied
in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington.
In order to qualify for selection, the soldier had to be a New Zealander, and his
personal identity unknown. As the “foremost symbol of remembrance for all
New Zealanders who did not make the journey home after serving their country
overseas,” anonymity is essential.³

While it is necessary to maintain the anonymity of the human remains contained
in the tombs of unknowns, the hope of discovering the identities of exhumed
soldiers and providing them with a final resting place among their comrades
under a named headstone, is a motivation for “The Diggers,” a group of dedicated,
amateur archaeologists in Belgium.

While undertaking an artist’s residency at In Flanders Fields Museum in
Belgium in 2007, I was invited to attend the recovery of the remains of a
First World War soldier from a cleared field near the town of Boezinge destined
for industrial use. Earthworks undertaken at a former battle site such as this
require caution because of the possibility of uncovering unexploded bombs.
The metal detectors of The Diggers had revealed the probable presence of human
remains about half a metre below the surface.

First, The Diggers discovered a water canteen, then part of a human skull.
Slowly and carefully they revealed a pelvis, then the bones of the legs, ribs, and
arms. My newly arrived companions from a bus tour and I stood enthralled as
The Diggers continued their delicate operation.

With the darkened bones were remnants of uniform material – which
disintegrated when handled – and some dark hair from around the skull. Because
his skeleton lay in a British trench from the 1915 lines, it is considered very likely
that he was a British soldier. As more clues appeared, The Diggers detective
work refined. A whistle lying amongst the bones suggested these were the remains
of an officer. The respectful approach with which these weekend archaeologists
undertook their mission was not diminished by the ninety years that separated
them from this man’s violent death. We privileged witnesses stood in collective
silence seeing not a skeleton but a fellow human.

Amongst the soldier’s remains was a pocket watch. This and other
‘evidence’ would be taken away from the scene for police forensic testing. Once
opened, the watch might reveal who the buried soldier was. Confirming his
identity would determine whether his name was carved into a Commonwealth War
Graves headstone or the words, “A soldier of the Great War Known unto God”.⁴

As with the unknown warrior, the following examples concern the use of
human skeletal remains as symbols. The first, presumably, a representation
of the horror of war and, perhaps, intended as a blurring of the dualism of
perpetrator and victim. In 2014 I was invited to make a sculpture commemorating
the First World War’s centenary at Germany’s Museum of Military History in
Dresden. Over the days I constructed the sculpture on site, I became familiar
with the museum’s collection on display. On the top floor was the skull of a
Second World War German soldier. It was displayed very discretely in a cabinet
out of direct public view; a gesture, I interpreted, of respect for both the
individual and the visitors to the museum.

The skull in Western art is used as a symbol of death, a reminder of its
inevitability, and the ephemerality of human life. It is a commonly found
motif in memento mori and vanitas paintings and sculptures.

In the 2011 Tate Modern Everyday poetics retrospective exhibition of Mexican
artist Gabriel Orozco, the accompanying free pamphlet described his Black kites
(1997) sculpture as representing “one of Orozco’s most striking uses of a found
object, in this case a human skull.”⁶ Of the many significant works in Orozco’s
exhibition, an image of the Black kites sculpture was chosen for the cover of the
pamphlet. The Tate Modern is aware of the compelling nature of death. For the
artist, it was important to work with something “real” associated with death;
conveying a confrontation with mortality, including, possibly, Orozco’s own.⁷

Meanwhile, the pamphlet’s authors characterise the work in aesthetic
terms – including its “elegance and beauty” – and process, describing the artist’s
time-consuming drawing of a chequerboard pattern with a graphite pencil over
the surface of “this fundamental element of death.”⁸

A year later, also at the Tate Modern, I saw another human skull artwork,
this time by British artist, Damien Hirst. The For the Love of God (2007) sculpture
comprises a platinum cast of an eighteenth century human skull, covered by
diamonds, and, the original skull’s teeth. According to the Tate Modern,
For the Love of God, “represents the artist’s continued interest in mortality
and notions of value.”⁹

The skulls of the suicide in Dresden’s Museum of Military History, Orozco’s
Black kites, and Hirst’s For the Love of God, are employed for their symbolic value.
While I meditate upon my own complicity in the trade of human remains,
I wonder if the museum curators and the two artists – and, indeed, the visitors
to these exhibitions – reflected on the humanity of the skulls, thought about to
whom they belonged, and about the lives their owners had led.


1. Te Papa. “Largest-ever repatriation of Moriori ancestral remains.” Accessed
August 14, 2022.
2. Ibid.
3. Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage. “Pukeahu National War Memorial
Park: Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.” Accessed August 14, 2022. https://mch.
4. An extended description of this event can be found in Kingsley Baird, Diary Dagboek:
2007 Artist in residence In Flanders Fields Museum (Ieper: In Flanders Fields
Museum, 2007), 50-56.
5. Display caption. Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, Dresden, Germany.
6. Tate Modern. Gabriel Orozco 2011 exhibition pamphlet. Leaflet text: Simon Bolitho,
Iria Candela, and Minnie Scott.
7. Noah Becker. Whitehot magazine of contemporary art. Accessed August 29, 2022.
8. Tate Modern. Gabriel Orozco, 2011
9. Tate Modern. “Damien Hirst’s iconic For the Love of God to be shown in Tate
Modern’s Turbine Hall. Accessed August 29, 2022.
A photo of For the Love of God can be found at:


Becker, Noah. Whitehot magazine of contemporary art. Accessed August 29, 2022.
Baird, Kingsley. Diary Dagboek: 2007 Artist in residence In Flanders Fields Museum.
Ieper: In Flanders Fields Museum, 2007.
Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage. “Pukeahu National War
Memorial Park: Tomb of the Unknown Warrior,” accessed August 14, 2022,
Tate Modern. Gabriel Orozco (exhibition pamphlet), 2011.
Tate Modern. “Damien Hirst’s iconic For the Love of God to be
shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Accessed August 29, 2022.
Te Papa. “Largest-ever repatriation of Moriori ancestral remains,”
accessed August 14, 2022,

Biographical Note

Kingsley Baird is a visual artist and writer examining memory, memorialisation,
and remembrance – primarily in relation to war, national identity, mythology, and
place. This investigation is undertaken through the design of commissioned public
memorials and making artefacts exploring new conceptual, aesthetic, and material
ways of creating memory forms.