French Debate: Is Maori Head Body Part or Art?

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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.

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.

“The mayor of Rouen made his decision without any consultation, and his decision is against the law,” Olivier Henrard, the legal adviser for the Ministry of Culture, said Thursday, referring to a 2002 law that states that works of art are “inalienable.”

“There are other Maori heads, there are mummies, there are religious relics in France,” he said. “If we don’t respect the law today, tomorrow other museums or elected officials might decide to send them back, too.”

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