October 26, 2007

Decapitated head or work of art?

French Debate:  Is Maori Head Body Part or Art?Since 1875, the mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior has been part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Natural History at Rouen in Normandy.

Mayor Pierre Albertini of Rouen, left, and Ambassador Sarah Dennis of New Zealand signed an agreement to return the head to New Zealand at a ceremony on Tuesday attended by Ariki Nuitumu Te Heuheu, back left, a representative of the Maori. The French Ministry of Culture is trying to prevent the move.

But when Rouen’s mayor arranged recently to return it to New Zealand as an act of “atonement” for colonial-era trafficking in human remains, the national Ministry of Culture stepped in to block him.

The ministry contends that the head is a work of art that belongs to France and that its return could set an unfortunate precedent for a huge swath of the national museum collections—from Egyptian mummies in the Louvre to Asian treasures in the Musée Guimet and African and Oceanic artifacts in the Musée du Quai Branly.

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