There is so much to find interesting in this article on a debate in France over whether or not to return a mummified, tattooed, Maori head. The argument is whether the head should be considered ‘human remains’ and returned as “an act of ‘atonement’ for colonial-era trafficking in human remains,” or an artifact that qualifies as a piece of art. If it is art, it falls under the jurisdiction of a 2002 law stating that works of art are “inalienable.” It is kind of a big deal, in that if the head is considered a body part, all sorts of heads, bones, and mummies would be sent from museums back to their countries of origin, where they would presumably be re-buried. The American Museum of Natural History in NYC apparently has 30 heads.
So what’s interesting here?
First, it is a mummified, tattooed, Maori head.
Second, there is a distinction between the law on the one hand, which calls for a categorical either/or distinction between art/artifact and human remains; and the reality on the other hand, that the head is obviously both a cultural artifact and a desecrated body part and symbol of European colonialism. This will be resolved not by changing the object itself, but through a political argument and resolution over what the head ‘is’. Of course, the head will still be both artifact and body part. But the administrative powers-that-be will make it into one or the other.
Third, another museum in France, the Quai Branly, argues that: a) the heads should definitely stay in France, since they are important cultural artifacts and sending them back to have them buried (and hence destroyed) is “a way of erasing a full page of history”; b) the four heads in the Quai Branly’s collection are “stored in a very special area, and absolutely will not be put on public display,” with access available only for a few experts; and c) they don’t know the heads’ value.
Hidden someplace in this example is something that’s been on my mind with regard to the new-new fashion of hedge funds buying up contemporary art. Art really is a funny kind of commodity, and it really does dance on the boundaries between culture and market. These kinds of controversies are surprisingly common in the Art World, and not just with antiquities and cultural artifacts – British authorities declined also to prosecute Elton John for owning and displaying “Clara and Edda Belly Dancing,” a photograph of two girls dancing around, one of whom is naked. So only buy the “safe” art? That doesn’t seem like a good solution either, since it doesn’t maximize on economic value..