Museum’s attempt to return Maori head faces hitch in France

By Angela Doland
Paris, France (AP) 11-07

The Normandy museum only wanted to do what was right: It offered to return a preserved, tattooed Maori head to New Zealand, an attempt to restore dignity to human remains that were long put on display as an exotic curiosity.

“Today it’s a Maori head, but tomorrow it could be a mummy in the Louvre,” Henrard said.
Instead, authorities in the Normandy city of Rouen got a scolding from the culture minister for not checking with national authorities first. A Rouen administrative court ruled during late October that, pending a decision later this year, the Maori head must remain in France.

For years, New Zealand has sought the return of mummified Maori heads and other remains, many of which were collected by Westerners in a grisly exchange for weapons and other goods. Rouen’s Maori head was given to the city’s natural history museum in unclear circumstances in 1875. It was on display there until 1996.

The museum reopened this year after 10 years of closure, which had allowed officials to take stock, and they decided the Maori head should be returned to New Zealand.

“This is an ethical gesture, based on the respect for world cultures and the dignity of every human being,” Rouen Mayor Pierre Albertini wrote on his blog. Sebastien Minchin, head of the Rouen museum, says returning the remains would help bring closure to “the hateful trafficking of another era.”

Some of the Maori heads, displaying the intricate tattoos of warriors, were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos, Rouen museum officials said. Some slaves were forcibly tattooed, then decapitated once their scars healed, to meet the demand, according to the museum.

Rouen planned a handover ceremony for the remains on Oct. 23. But on the eve of the event, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel issued a statement saying Rouen did not follow the proper procedures and asking an administrative court to halt the transfer.

“Such a decision requires the advice of a scientific committee, whose role is to verify that there is no unjustified damage to national heritage,” the statement said.

The following day, the ceremony in Rouen went ahead, attended by Paris-based New Zealand diplomats. But it was merely symbolic, and the Maori head remains in a storeroom.

The New Zealand Embassy declined to comment on the issue.

But a New Zealand museum director Thursday accused France of defending a trade in human beings.

Paul Tapsell, the director of the Maori collection at the Auckland Museum, said the preserved head, known as a toi moko, could not be considered part of France’s national heritage.

“Basically, we’re talking about the protection of the trade in human beings,” Tapsell said.

“These were living people, they’re part of living memory, our grandparents remember their grandparents speaking of these terrible things that occurred,” he added.

Officials of Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand which handles such repatriations, said they were not concerned by the French government intervention.

“It’s an issue between the museum and the French government and they need to be comfortable that everything is being done according to their own systems,” museum spokesman Paul Brewer said.

The repatriation of cultural items was a new practice, Brewer said, and it might take some time for institutions to feel comfortable with it.

Olivier Henrard, legal adviser for the Culture Ministry, stressed that France wasn’t in principle opposed to the return of human remains. In 2002, it returned the skeleton and organs of Saartjie Baartman, long displayed under the pejorative nickname of “Hottentot Venus,” to South Africa.

But the ministry worried that Rouen’s act would set a precedent for unilateral decisions.

“Today it’s a Maori head, but tomorrow it could be a mummy in the Louvre,” Henrard said.

The culture ministry plans an international conference to set out guidelines for such cases. Officials from Paris’ Quai Branly museum for the primitive arts – which itself has about half a dozen Maori heads in storage – would put the conference together.

In another upcoming case in Europe, Liverpool’s national museums said they were preparing to return all their human remains to New Zealand. In September, Chicago’s The Field Museum became one of the first major U.S. museums to repatriate Maori remains. Arapata Hakiwai, director of Maori treasures at the Te Papa National Museum, said then that his museum had acquired remains from more than 30 institutions worldwide since 2003.