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Museums changing approach to displaying human remains

maori_03.jpgThe Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has returned a mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior to New Zealand.

In an emotional ceremony at the museum, a delegation of Maori people played music and chanted prayers.

They carefully wrapped the head in plastic, and then placed it in a box to protect it during the journey back to New Zealand.

The head was likely transported to Europe in the late 19th century.

Once seen as collectors items 

At the time, the intricately tattooed Maori heads known as "toi moko" were considered a curiosity and collectable item. The facial tattoos were a sign of status in the community.

According to Maori mueseum leader Michelle Hippolite, the Maori people themselves participated in the trade.

Hippolite says the heads were usually sold after the person died, but sometimes the bearer of particularly "valuable" tattoos would meet an early death to accomodate the travel schedule of European traders.

maoriheadceremony.JPGThe head that was part of the permanent collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was purchased at an auction at Sotheby's in London in 1949 and donated to the museum.

According to the musuem director Nathalie Bondil, it was displayed to the public for a brief period of time in the eighties.

"This issue is still very topical"  

Today, attitudes have changed. The head is seen not as an object, but as human remains.

"It's a relief to know these remains wil lnow be laid to rest in the land of their ancestors," says Bondil.

But while this head is being returned to the Maori people, Bondil says museums are still grappling with how to treat other human remains in their collections.

"We feel it is normal for human dignity to be respected, even if ethical questions remain, in my opinion, about what we put on view, notably with respect to certain exhibitions of cadavers."

New direction for museum exhibitions

The return of the Maori head also raises questions about how to display religious and cultural artifacts in museums.

Maori people have been involved in organizing an exhibition E Tu Aki: Maori Standing Strong at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City.

And Natalie Bondil says the experience of returning the head to the Maori people has influenced the way she thinks about an upcoming exhibition at the MFA about Peru.

Listen to Jeanette's interview with Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Director Nathalie Bondil:   

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Listen to Jeanette's interview with Maori chief and museum leader Michelle Hippolite, and Hélène Bernier, Director of Exhibitions and International Affairs at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City.

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(Photos: Top, courtesy of Museum of Civilization, Quebec. Bottom, cememony to return the head to the Maori people, taken at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by Tanya Birkbeck.)