9 May 2011

Shrunken Maori head to be formally farewelled

4:45 pm on 9 May 2011

A tattooed shrunken Maori head will be farewelled in France at the start of its journey back to New Zealand.

The shrunken head, known as a toi moko, has been held in the Museum of Rouen in northern France since 1875. It's one of an estimated 14 such heads held by French museums.

Shrunken heads were in great demand from explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries; some even had slaves tattooed and then killed especially for their heads. Such was the demand that Maori eventually stopped preserving tattooed heads.

About 320 heads have been returned to New Zealand since governments sought their return in the 1980s.

The Museum of Rouen decided to return this particular toi moko to New Zealand in 2007 but was overruled by the French government, which feared setting a precedent for other museum artefacts like Egyptian mummies and relics of Christian martyrs.

The French senate last year agreed to make an exception in this case.

The farewell ceremony will involve chants and prayers from Maori elders. New Zealand ambassador Rosemary Banks will be in attendance, along with Michelle Hippolite of Te Papa Tongarewa.

Te Papa says the head will be genetically tested when it arrives in the country so that it can be returned to its iwi and buried.