Mummified Maori head returned to NZ

By AAP with AG Staff 10 May 2011
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The tattooed, mummified head of a Maori tribesman will be returned to New Zealand, from France, after 136 years.

THE MUMMIFIED AND TATTOOED head of a Maori man will be repatriated to New Zealand after it spent 136 years in a Normandy museum.

An elaborate ceremony is being held at Rouen City Hall in France for the handover of the head, the first to be returned from a total of 16 that were once displayed as exotic curiosities.

“It’s truly a solemn and symbolic day,” New Zealand ambassador Rosemary Banks says. She says that New Zealanders are “very happy” that the tattooed head will be returned after so many years.

For years, New Zealand has sought the return of Maori heads kept in collections abroad, many of which were obtained by Westerners in exchange for weapons and other goods.

Dozens of museums worldwide, though not all, have agreed to return them. Maori, the island nation’s indigenous people, believe their ancestors’ remains should be respected in their home area without being disturbed.

Rouen Museum hands remains to Wellington’s Te Papa scientists

Michelle Hippolite, a Maori spiritual leader and co-director of the museum in Wellington that will take possession of the head, welcomed the return, saying that the other 15, now at museums all around France, will be returned in 2012.

She says that “though it may appear” that Rouen’s museum is losing part of its collection, it is gaining “an ongoing relationship with a modern people, a people of its time who are tenacious, a people of its time who are courageous”.

The Rouen Museum tried once before, in 2007, to return the head but was stopped at the last minute by the Culture Ministry of France. France considers human remains conserved in museums to be part of its cultural or scientific heritage. A law was passed last year allowing the return of the heads.

French senator Catherine Morin-Desailly authored the bill to return the heads. Scientists at Wellington’s Te Papa museum will attempt to identify the head’s tribe, after which it will be returned to the tribe for burial.

Maori Tattoo Trophies

Some Maori heads, with intricate tattoos, 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, French museum officials say.

Little is known about how the Rouen Museum acquired a Maori head in 1875, offered by a Parisian named Drouet. “It’s an enigma,” says museum director Sebastien Minchin, adding that neither Drouet’s full name nor profession is known.

Until 1996, when the museum was closed for a decade, the head was displayed with the prehistoric collection.

“As was done at the time, they compared the ‘savage’ from the other side of the world with our local cavemen,” Sebastien says. When Sebastien became director in 2006 and discovered the head, he decided to store it because exposing it “could pose problems” for both the Maoris and the public.

Sebastien says that the problem goes beyond legal issues in France. He says he was criticised for opening “Pandora’s box” when he first tried to return the head. “There is a fear of emptying our museums,” he says. “There is a fear of restitution demands for other human remains, and notably Egyptian mummies.”

France passed a special law before the 2002 return to South Africa of the skeleton and bottled organs of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th-century African woman exhibited in Paris and London, sometimes in a cage, sometimes dressed in feathers, under the pejorative nickname “the Hottentot Venus”.

New Zealand’s Ambassador to France Rosemary Banks, left, Rouen mayor Valerie Fourneyron
and Maori spiritual leader Michelle Hippolite, right, cover a Maori head with a traditional
koroway during a handover ceremony at Rouen city hall, France. (credit: AAP)