A French court has blocked the natural history museum of the city of Rouen from returning a mummified, tattooed Maori head to New Zealand, a transfer that was opposed by the French culture minstry on the grounds that the head was part of France’s cultural heritage. The head had been donated to the Rouen museum by a French collector in 1875, a time when apparently it was possible to collect human remains and not be considered an offshoot of that family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Where, I wonder, is Marie Antoinette’s head? And how would the French feel if it was in a display case in Auckland? From the time it first popped up in the news last fall this story has struck me as a particularly egregious expansion of the ever expanding notion of cultural property — and this at the very time that nations have been learning to regard human remains differently from other things that might be categorized as cultural “objects”. Last September the Field Museum in Chicago returned Maori bones and a preserved head to the same New Zealand Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, that made the request to Rouen. (On the other hand, if that’s the right way to put it, the American Museum of Natural History in New York still has 35 Maori heads.) And of course in the U.S., federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding are subject to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires them to return Native American remains and cultural objects to the appropriate tribe.
What I suspect is that the French might not have been so quick to act in this case if it had not been for the successful Italian campaign to reclaim ancient art from American museums. When Christine Abanel, the French culture minister, stepped in to block the return of the head last fall, she said she was concerned that sending it back could set a precedent that would open the way to demands for the return of other human remains in French collections. I would bet she’s also worried about demands for the return of other kinds of cultural property. For one thing, the Louvre has a few chunks of the Parthenon marbles. Though the Greeks are more focused on getting back the ones in the British Museum, they want the Louvre marbles too.
And now that I think of it, didn’t this painting used to be in a church in Venice?