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France gives Maori heads back to New Zealand

AFP/Mehdi Fedouach
4 min

France has handed over 20 mummified Maori heads to New Zealand after four years of negotiations. The heads had been on show in French museums for nearly two centuries, displayed as objets d’art, while the Maori consider them to be sacred human remains.

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Monday’s handover ceremony took place at Paris’s Quai Branly museum, which had been hosting a special exhibition on the Maori since October.

Derek Lardelli, a Maori elder, led the ceremony, which featured traditional music and chanting.

At the end of the day, they are ancestors, from a time way before ours. However, when looking at them, we can see ourselves in there. And when we link to today, we can see a future for us. It gives us an opportunity to link to the past, to understand the present and look to a future that is saying to us, ‘yes we are waiting for you’.

Maori elder Derek Lardelli

"You are the breath of life, you, our forefathers," he said. "Today we will be able to bring you home.”

Lardelli signed the handover documents along with the co-director of the New Zealand culture museum Te Papa; New Zealand's ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks; and French Minister Frédéric Mitterrand.

After the ceremony Lardelli explained that the return of the heads – known as toi moko or mokomokai - is important not just for the Maori, but for all indigenous peoples.

“They’re the visual reminder of who we are as indigenous people of this earth,” he told RFI. “If you remove this information, then you erase the memory from the soul of the tribal group, which takes away their ability to link to the land and the soil.”

The mummified heads are those of Maori warriors killed in battles during the 18th century. Warriors would cut off the heads and preserve them, either as war trophies, or to offer as reconciliation gestures during peacetime.

European explorers, curious about all indigenous objects, were fascinated by the heads, whose faces were elaborately tattooed with blue-green designs to indicate their rank.

For nearly 100 years Europeans traded for the heads, creating a massive market that only ended in the 1860s. New Zealand started to request the heads be returned, so they could be properly buried, in the 1980s.

More than 200 heads have been handed back by 14 countries, but the Te Papa museum estimates about 500 remain in European museums.

Those in France were scattered among various museums, and had not been displayed since 1996.

One was returned by the city of Rouen in 2007, after a campaign lead by the city’s then-deputy mayor in charge of culture, Catherine Morin-Desailly.

Now an MP for the Centre Union party, she introduced an amendment to the law governing French museum exhibits with a specific mention of the heads, paving the way for them to leave France.

“I thought from the beginning that it was legitimate to hand over what was acquired illegally, or at least, improperly,” she said. "Throughout the world, Europeans plundered human remains to take them back to Europe to be examined."

While France was open to New Zealand’s request for the return of the heads, some worried about setting a precedent for other countries to ask for the return of artifacts, like Egyptian mummies.

Morin-Desailly said that France wrote a specific law authorising the heads to be released from France's museum collections, "just as we had to write a special law for the Hottentot Venus, the body of Sarah Bartmaan.”

Bartmaan was a South African woman who was toured through Europe in the 18th century and whose corpse was preserved and put on display in a Paris museum until the 1970s. It was returned to South Africa in 2002.

Michelle Hippolite, the co-director of the Te Papa museum says everyone learned patience in the four years it took for the law to be changed.

“Sometimes we can get lost in translation,” she said, adding that both France and the Maoris learned to see each others’ point of view, which was not easy, “particularly when they speak a different language”.

The difference was one of perspective and philosophy, she says.

Whereas France and the museums housing the heads considered them art objects, “we don’t consider the toi moko collection items.”

Experts say it is possible that other heads remain in private collections in France.

Hippolite says she hopes France will become a model for other museums around the world.

“I think in the museum world there is certainly an increased discussion of the place of human remains alongside that of collections,” she said.

The French government has played a big role in “bringing museums together and giving them a heart”, said Lardelli.

The heads will be welcomed in New Zealand by a ceremony and the Te Papa museum will then try to identify the tribal groups they came from.

“There seems to be limited information,” Lardelli said. “But the main thing is that they are Maori, they are our ancestors."

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