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Maori heads in French museum collections: A recent controversy illuminated by the works of a contemporary Maori artist

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In late 2007, the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Rouen announced its intention to return to New Zealand a Maori head that was part of its South Pacific collection. Just a few weeks before the official ceremony, the Minister of Culture blocked the restitution through a court injunction, arguing that the head must be considered the property of the French State and that such procedures threatened museum collections nationally. This developed into a major controversy, which raised legal issues, as well as provoking debates on museology and ethics. The controversy was resolved in early 2012, with the restitution of twenty such heads through the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, an institution now in partnership with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. This article will explore the conflicting visions in France and in New Zealand and the political implications of the controversy. Then it will analyse the impact on the work of George Nuku, a leading New Zealand artist who was commissioned to work on the renovation of the Rouen Oceania Gallery. Nuku, whose creations have been integrated into the permanent collections of museums around the world, has produced a series of works inspired by the Maori heads, and in these works they are used as the basis for rethinking the colonial legacy and challenging politically correct reconciliation politics.
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Keywords: George Nuku; Maori; Maori heads (toi moko); contemporary art; human remains; indigeneity; museums; reconciliation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Rennes 2

Publication date: 01 October 2013

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