PARIS, Oct. 25 — Since 1875, the mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior has been part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Natural History at Rouen in Normandy.
But when Rouen’s mayor arranged recently to return it to New Zealand as an act of “atonement” for colonial-era trafficking in human remains, the national Ministry of Culture stepped in to block him.
The ministry contends that the head is a work of art that belongs to France and that its return could set an unfortunate precedent for a huge swath of the national museum collections — from Egyptian mummies in the Louvre to Asian treasures in the Musée Guimet and African and Oceanic artifacts in the Musée du Quai Branly.
“The mayor of Rouen made his decision without any consultation, and his decision is against the law,” Olivier Henrard, the legal adviser for the Ministry of Culture, said Thursday, referring to a 2002 law that states that works of art are “inalienable.”
“There are other Maori heads, there are mummies, there are religious relics in France,” he said. “If we don’t respect the law today, tomorrow other museums or elected officials might decide to send them back, too.”
The authorities in Rouen insist that the Maori head is a body part, not a work of art, and that according to France’s bioethics law it must be returned to its place of origin.
“This object reflects the barbaric trafficking in body parts, the belief that another race was inferior to ours,” said Catherine Morin-Desailly, Rouen’s deputy mayor for culture and a senator, who proposed the return of the head. “It belongs to the heritage of humanity, not in storage somewhere in a museum.”
The Maoris traditionally preserved the tattooed heads of warriors killed in battle to keep their memory alive. Trade in body parts flourished in the 19th century, as contact with outsiders increased. Europeans collected Maori remains. Tattooed Maori fighters sometimes were in danger of being killed so their heads could be sold. Some Maori slaves were forcibly tattooed, then decapitated.
Since 1992, the Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington, has made requests for all Maori remains to be returned from around the globe, as part of a project to restore some dignity to the dead. The museum tries to identify and hand over the remains to the tribes and ideally to allow for proper burials.
Museums in more than two dozen institutions have complied, but the Rouen initiative would be the first for France.
Last month the Field Museum of natural history in Chicago returned a Maori head and other bones to New Zealand. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has more than 30 Maori heads.
In recent days, Christine Albanel, the culture minister, won a ruling from a local court to stop the process to return the tattooed head. Calling for a process to “guarantee the integrity of our national heritage,” she warned of “heavy repercussions” for France’s other collections.
She also devised a particularly French plan that would certainly delay any decision: a scholarly debate next year organized by the Quai Branly museum and a study of the “special ethical problems” of human remains in public museums.
Stéphane Martin, the director of the Quai Branly museum, agreed with the ministry that the head should stay in France.
“From my point of view, they are cultural artifacts that had a function in society,” he said. “Sending back these artifacts to New Zealand, and destroying them by burying them is a way of erasing a full page of history.”
Mr. Martin has refused New Zealand’s request for the Quai Branly museum to send back the four Maori heads in its collection. “They are stored in a very special area, and absolutely will not be put on public display,” he said. Access is restricted to a few specialists, he said, adding that he did not know the heads’ value.
The issue of the Maori head at the Rouen museum arose early this year when the museum re-opened after a 10-year renovation. The head has been in the museum’s collection since 1875, but there was no record of its provenance and no listing in the official inventory.
Museum officials have not displayed the head, and they decided that its mere possession did not fit the spirit of the new museum. Because the museum is a local institution governed by the city, the mayor decided he had the authority to arrange for the head to be returned. The museum has issued a sketch of the head in its possession, but has prohibited taking photographs.
“This is an ethical gesture based on respect for world cultures and dignity that every human being deserves,” Mayor Pierre Albertini, who is a lawyer and a member of Parliament, wrote on his blog last week.
On Tuesday, a high-level New Zealand delegation, including a senior Maori tribal chief, visited Rouen for a symbolic transfer ceremony. Mr. Albertini and New Zealand’s ambassador to France, Sarah Dennis, signed the document agreeing to the return — if the French state approves.
“We in New Zealand have a long-standing policy of repatriating Maori human remains wherever it is possible around the world,” Ms. Dennis said. “We responded to the very respectful and sensitive gesture of Rouen with appreciation.”
Ms. Morin-Desailly, the deputy mayor, cites an important precedent in France concerning the return of human remains: those of Saartjie Baartman — the “Hottentot Venus” as she was pejoratively labeled in her day. A farmer’s slave born in 1789, she was sold to a British Marine surgeon and presented in public in London and later in Paris as a freak because of her oversized buttocks and genitalia.
After she died, her remains were displayed at the now-defunct Musée de l’Homme until 1976, and then kept in storage. In 2002, after years of resisting, France sent her remains home to South Africa