Ancient head begins journey home

By Yvonne Tahana

A Maori head, which has been in France since 1875, will be handed over to Te Papa officials at a ceremony in the city of Rouen today.

Te Papa's repatriation team is in France as the city, for the second time, hands back a toi moko, a tattooed mummified head, which was barred in 2007 from leaving the country amid fears it could start a flood of demands on the state's cultural treasures.

The head made its way to France in 1875 and has not been on display for more than a decade.

The first images of the formerly disputed Maori head reveal a gaping eye socket and the dark lines of its moko.

The Herald believes Rouen's Museum of Natural History specially commissioned work to replace the head which is being returned to New Zealand. High-tech equipment was used to record information digitally before reconstituting the face in 3D.

An animation shows the head rotating a full 360 degrees, with the moko clearly visible on one side.

Markings are absent from the other side, from cheek to jaw.

This "fake" version would be an intrinsic part of the institution's history and relationship with New Zealand, a source said.

Museum director Sebastien Minchin could not be contacted for comment.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of mummified tattooed heads, toi moko, made their way into European and American institutions.

Some were the heads of slaves cut off to order while others were effectively stolen from graves on the say-so of colonial curators such as Julius von Haast.

In 2007 Rouen's then mayor Pierre Albertini said the return was an ethical gesture rooted in respect for the culture of peoples and the innate dignity of every human being.

But his administration's efforts were stymied when the country's culture minister, Christine Albanel, went to the courts to stop the 2007 return - arguing it breached heritage laws.

A law change which applies specifically to toi moko, to allow declassification and so allow them to pass out of collections legally, was passed last year paving the way for today's ceremony and the future return of other heads held in French museums.

It marks the last stop on a European mission where Te Papa has collected three skulls, two skeletons and two other toi moko from institutions in Sweden, Germany and Norway.

The repatriation delegation returns to Wellington on Thursday and will welcome representatives from European nations including Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly, who wrote the toi moko bill.

- NZ Herald

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