New Zealand’s 136-year wait for Maori head ended

By Cecile Brisson
Paris, France (AP) May 2011

The mummified and tattooed head of a Maori was returned to New Zealand after spending 136 years in a Normandy museum, a belated gesture to restore dignity to the first of 16 such human heads once displayed as exotic curiosities.

The Rouen Museum tried once before, in 2007, to return the head but was stopped at the last minute by the Culture Ministry. France considers human remains conserved in museums to be among its cultural or scientific patrimony.

A symbolic handover ceremony went ahead in Rouen in 2007. Last week, it was the real thing, thanks to a law passed a year ago that allows Maori heads in France to be returned to their homelands.

An elaborate ceremony with incantations was held at Rouen City Hall during last week's handover of the head to New Zealand diplomats.

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.

French Sen. Catherine Morin-Desailly authored the bill to return the heads, which were then buried.

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 have said.

Little is known about how the Rouen Museum acquired a Maori head in 1875, offered by a Parisian named Drouet.

“It’s an enigma,” said 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,” Minchin said in a telephone interview.

When Minchin became director in 2006 and discovered the head, he said he had it stored because exposing it “could pose problems” for both the Maoris and the public.

More than a half-dozen countries have returned more than 300 Maori heads, according to a report to the French parliament on the question.

It was not immediately known if and when the 15 other Maori heads in France would be returned to New Zealand. The heads are spread in museums from Paris to Marseille, with two heads at the Montpellier School of Medicine,

Minchin said that the problem goes beyond legal issues in France. He said he was criticized for opening “Pandora’s box” when he first tried to return the head.

“There is a fear of emptying our museums,” he said. “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.”