Whilst conducting work on its ethnographic collections, the Museum of Rouen’s team rediscovered a Māori head in 2006. The Museum did not wish to exhibit or keep the head; therefore, with the support of the town of Rouen, in 2007 it began the process of returning this tattooed head to New Zealand in order to enable it to be buried in its land of origin. This move responded to the international requests of both the Māoris and New Zealand, and was entirely consistent with the Sustainable and Responsible Museum ethos.
This was a first within France, and was supported by Valérie Pécresse, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, but blocked by Christine Albanel, the Minister of Culture, at the end of 2007. A bill was tabled and received the support of all of Rouen’s elected officials. This law authorised the restoration of all Māori heads held within French museums and was unanimously adopted within the Senate in 2009, eventually winning the support of Frédéric Mitterrand, the new Minister for Culture, and the French National Assembly in 2010.
The Museum of Rouen returned the Māori head that it had held since 1875 back to New Zealand in May 2011.
Other French museums did the same with their Māori heads in January 2012.
The step taken by the Museum of Rouen is significant for more than one reason, beyond the controversy caused in the museum world. It showed that:
- Museums hold many human remains in all forms and from all over.
- Some of these remains may have been the result of barbaric trafficking that led to people’s deaths in order to supply nineteenth-century museums. This is the case with Māori heads.
- The exhibition and preservation of human remains within museums raises many questions.
- In 2007, no legal text governing museums and heritage broached the legal status of human remains.
- In 2007, outside of the museum world, no wider legal text broached the legal status of human remains.
- Human remains’ lack of legal status perfectly illustrates much wider concerns about our society’s perception of death, the start and end of life, and all the debates that regularly present the topic.
- Finally, this move raises the question of the legitimacy of indigenous peoples and their claims, which are not always taken into consideration, when they are governed by international laws under the auspices of UNESCO.
The Museum’s move resulted in a law that enabled the restoration of the Māori heads held French museums back to New Zealand. It drove parliamentary debates enabling an article ruling on the protection of remains and corpses to be included in the French Civil Code in 2008.
The Museum of Rouen’s move was praised by UNESCO.
Finally, it set the Museum of Rouen on the path of a sustainable and responsible approach that it continues to apply today, particularly through its collaborative work with indigenous peoples and promotion of ethnographic collections within the Gallery of Continents.
Dessin de Delphine Zigoni, 2009 © Muséum de Rouen