Editorial – Of Rights and Rites

As the old saying goes, life imitates art. But the line between the two can be hazier than a Monet, as a debate over a Maori artifact proves.

The item in question is a human head; specifically, the mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior that has been part of a French museum’s collection since 1875. It is a symbol of the grim traffic in body parts that 19th century European colonizers were fond of.

Recently, the Museum of Natural History in Normandy, along with Rouen’s mayor, Pierre Albertini, decided that the head should be repatriated to New Zealand. As Catherine Morin-Desailly, Rouen’s deputy mayor for culture, reasoned, ?This object reflects the barbaric trafficking in body parts, the belief that another race was inferior to ours. It belongs to the heritage of humanity, not in storage somewhere in a museum.?

But the French Ministry of Culture disagreed, and stepped in to block the handover. In their view, the head is a work of art, and as such is ?inalienable.? Their fear is that the return of the head will set a precedent that could lead to the loss of other museum artifacts, such as the Egyptian mummies in the Louvre.

The return of the head could, indeed, open the door to a flood of requests. Everything from bones to mummified remains to body parts could disappear from France’s museums. In some cases, the items would be returned to indigenous groups for burial. (Although France has yet to comply with any such requests, more than two dozen other institutions have. In one recent case, Chicago’s Field Museum of natural history returned a Maori head and other bones.)

The debate could go on for years as to whether they are, indeed, works of art. Ultimately, the question is ?Should they be returned?? And the answer is yes.

Those who insist that the head and its ilk should be catalogued and studied have a good point. Viewing these artifacts through a scientific lens provides an invaluable wealth of information–not only about historical events and practices, but also potential discoveries that may help humanity today. And as technology evolves, scientists are able to glean new information from items that were thought to have yielded all the information they could.

But there’s a larger issue at play, one that all the scientific discoveries in the world can’t resolve. It is the issue of humanity’s failure to accord mutual respect to traditions–and people–of all cultures. It’s as much a problem today as it was when those early European colonizers treated the body parts of Maori fathers, husbands, and brothers as nothing more than souvenirs. It’s evident in the way that different ethnic groups wage war on each other across the globe, or the way religious intolerance leaves blood-spattered streets in the wake of bombings.

Egyptian mummies, for instance, are more than simply curiosities. They are people whose families (or subjects) placed them with great ceremony in their final resting place, and intended them to stay there.

This isn’t to say that scientific and historical discoveries should be ignored. Study them, share the knowledge gained, but, when dealing with the remains of people from a known civilization, return them to be treated with the respect that any of us deserves–the dignity of a burial in keeping with the customs of our society.

Because demonstrating respect for the deceased, and therefore the living, of all cultures will go a lot further as an example to future generations than any museum display ever could.