The Twisted Tale of a Body Part

Maori It was bound to come to this: ancient body parts held hostage by a French bureaucracy fearful of creating a precedent. That’s the truth behind a strange tale playing out in France this week. The mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior was what an enlightened deputy mayor in Rouen decided was not a work of art, but indeed, part of a "barbaric trafficking in body parts," as Catherine Morin-Desailly told the New York Times this week.  She struck a deal to return the head to New Zealand as a gesture to the dignity of the dead. Maoris, native to that country, preserved the tattooed heads of warriors killed in battle for their own cultural memory. Europeans collected the heads in the 19th century as curios, along with many other things on many other continents that did not belong to them. Mummies, for example. (U.S. museums have their own store of Maori heads, along with relics of Native American culture in U.S. museums that include human remains.) In France, the culture ministry has blocked the return because of worries that it would open the door to a flood of restitution requests. At the moment matters are stuck in court; the culture minister won a ruling to stop the handoff of the head, while Morin-Desailly had a symbolic ceremony with a high-level New Zealand delegation to do so anyway. The standoff exposes absurdities in the French cultural approach to patrimony. The French claim that any artifact or object that is part of a national collection is, by definition, French patrimony. This is an untenable one-way street in a world where restitution is an ongoing, evolving issue. Meanwhile, the culture ministry has convened a conference to study the ethical problems of storing or exhibiting human remains in museums. This one will be fascinating to watch, however it plays out.