Heading back home - Monocolumn | Monocle


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21 May 2010

This month, France passed a law allowing Maori remains held in its museums to be returned to descendents for proper interment, gratifying indigenous New Zealanders and resolving a long-simmering cultural dispute over the sanctity of human remains.

The artefacts in question are toi moko, tattooed heads traditionally claimed as trophies of tribal warfare. For five decades until the practice was outlawed in 1831, the heads were prized as macabre curios by European collectors, and studied to support Darwinist theories. So lucrative was the trade that chiefs were known to tattoo then kill their slaves to satisfy demand. Others were stolen from burial caves, eventually finding their way into an estimated 120 museums internationally.

To Maori, genealogy is identity, the connection to ancestral lands vital, and the dead body sacred – most of all, the head. To have their forebears’ body parts held by distant and indifferent institutions was perceived as an abasement. Since 1992, New Zealand has prosecuted a quiet but persuasive diplomatic campaign, appealing for their repatriation.

Generally, they encountered little resistance. Almost 40 institutions obliged. And in 2007, when a forgotten warrior’s head was discovered in museum archives in Rouen, the stage seemed set for the first return from France’s rich trove of cultural treasures. Then-mayor Pierre Albertini described the impending hand-over as “an ethical gesture, rooted in respect for … the innate dignity of every human being”.

But the sentiments were not shared by France’s Culture Ministry, which blocked the repatriation at the 11th hour, citing laws preventing the dissolution of France’s national heritage. Outraged Maori expressed a different view of whose heritage was at stake.

France’s lawmakers have since deliberated, weighing New Zealand’s request against a concern such a move could open the floodgates to international claims. The decision allowing the return of the Rouen head – and up to 20 others held in French institutions – has been framed as a moral exception, as people were murdered to sustain the gruesome trade.

For his part, Te Herekiekie Herewini, repatriation programme manager at the Museum of New Zealand, is simply looking forward to taking consignment of the sacred artefacts, arranging to have their tattoos and, if necessary, DNA analysed for their provenance. “We see them as our ancestors, returned after 200 years,” he says. Draped in ceremonial cloaks, the toi moko will eventually be welcomed home with “a lot of emotion”; perhaps too, an underdog’s sense of vindication at having prevailed in an important cultural debate, and shown up the curators as the relics.


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