Your Excellency, Ambassador of New Zealand, dear Rosemary Banks, Representatives of the Maori Delegation of the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of Wellington, Mr. Derek Lardelli [Maori Elder], Ms. Michelle Hippolite [Head of the Maori Delegation], Dear Marie-Christine Blandin, Honourable Senator, Dear Catherine Morin-Desailly, Dear elected Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Mrs. Catherine Morin-Desailly, Dear Chair of the Senate Committee on Culture, Education and Communication, Dear Mr. Marie-Christine Blandin, Dear Catherine Morin-Desailly, Dear Elected Members, Dear Mr. Director General of Heritage, dear Philipppe Bélaval, Mr. President of the Musée du Quai Branly, dear Stéphane Martin, ladies and gentlemen,
“Now, as he was very carefully completing his task for the night … the Reciter began to stammer… He stopped, and redoubling his attention, repeated the story of trial. There were prodigious series of ancestors from which came the leaders (…), divine by race and stature. (…) A silence weighed, with a little anguish. (…) What does forgetting the name presage?"
These lines were written by a French Navy doctor a little over a hundred years ago. One of the most unclassifiable authors of French literature, too. Victor Segalen, in the Immemorial, tells us about another world, both near and far by a few thousand kilometres, that of the Maori of Tahiti, your cousins.
Like so many other pakeha [Europeans], Segalen, during his stay in the South Pacific, was struck by another relation to memory, to ancestors, to genealogy; by the singular sacredness of a link that is sung. A bond that is undoubtedly of great universality, present in all our cultures, but which takes an exceptional form among the Maori people, as this magnificent ceremony shows us.
The anonymous faces we are honouring today have a complex history. They are colonial and predation. That of the sacred become object of traffics. In 1824, members of the Dumont d'Urville expedition observed the manipulations and material and symbolic misappropriations of these human remains, which Great Britain tried to prohibit by law in 1831. Among these observers, there was already a common disgust for a form of memorial decay whose responsibility was collective, and awareness of the need to restore the aura of a part of the memory of humanity. We don’t monetize mana.
In New Zealand, the joint reflection of institutions and the Maori people on the phenomena of loss of references, I know, is particularly advanced. We heard about it in Europe, in particular with Alan Duff’s L'Âme des Guerriers, adapted for cinema by Lee Tamahori, on the experience of losing landmarks in urban areas, on returning to the clan. We share with you the values of this difficult and constitutive debate of contemporary New Zealand society. I believe this is one of the dimensions that we could develop more in the context of our cultural cooperation, beyond the high-quality exchanges in the fields of literature, cinema, the performing arts – I am thinking for example of the presentation last November, at the Théâtre de la Ville, of “Tempest without a body” by Lémi Ponifasio.
I would like to pay tribute this morning to the French Parliament and its work – especially to Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly, who initiated an original legislative initiative, as well as to Philippe Richert and Colette Le Moal, who presented their report to the Senate and the Assembly.
In fact, it is rare for a law to be unanimous, as is the case for the one of May 18, 2010. This initiative, launched in February 2008, helped resolve the legal difficulties encountered in the case of the city of Rouen, which Catherine Morin-Desailly, Senator of Seine-Maritime, knows well, taking into account the case of Maori heads as a whole. The text of the law was unanimously adopted by the Senators on June 29, 2009, before which I intervened favourably, on behalf of the government. In 2010, the Assembly confirmed the position of the Senate and the Maori head of Rouen was returned during a ceremony at the Rouen City Hall last May.
This law, I recall, authorizes the restitution of the 20 Maori heads whose presence has been identified in the French collections. They are given to New Zealand at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, to which the New Zealand government has entrusted the responsibility for the repatriation of Maori human remains. They will no longer be objects of collections and will be stored in a sacralized space. By taking into account the notion of human dignity, this French law comes, by its ethical gesture, to respond to a strong expectation of the Maori people; it translates into deeds the common commitment to France and New Zealand for intercultural dialogue.
I would like to thank our New Zealand partners for their availability to have maintained an ongoing dialogue during the work of the French Parliament and the Service des musées de France (Directorate General of Heritage). In this regard, it is my duty to point out that my Ministry has proposed to organize the 20 Maori heads in Paris, thanks to the coordination work of Claire Chastanier and the authentication work of Michel Van Praet, then a member of the General Inspection of Museums. This dialogue has made it possible at each stage to avoid any legal difficulties and to guarantee our convergence of views.
My thanks also go to the institutions that have committed themselves throughout France to guarantee the success of this enterprise: the national and territorial museums - the Quai Branly Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Marine, the Nantes Museum, the Lille Museum, the Dunkerque Museum of Fine Arts, the Lyon Confluence Museum, the Museum of Sens, the Museum of African, Oceanian and Amerindian Arts in Marseille, as well as the University of Montpellier, I am pleased that she has agreed to be involved in a process that mainly concerns the museums of France.
Among the institutions, I want to pay special tribute to the National Museum of Natural History, which holds one of the world’s largest scientific collections of biological anthropology. This is a complex responsibility, whose ethical and legal issues require real expertise. The quality of the scientific colloquium held at the end of last week with the representatives of the Te Papa museum, and the conference for the general public on the scientific approach underlying the entire operation testify to this.
The commitment of all those who have worked on this legislative, diplomatic and scientific approach has made it possible to make an important contribution to the history of Maori settlement and maritime migration in the South Pacific, thanks in particular to the research conducted on the DNA traces of the Toi Moko. I am pleased that those responsible for scientific research at the National Museum of Natural History have been able to contribute, with the help of their New Zealand colleagues and the medical examiner Philippe Charlier, to these discoveries.
I would also like to announce the upcoming installation of the National Scientific Commission of Collections, established by the same law of May 18, 2010, In particular, it is responsible for overseeing decommissioning procedures, the complexity of which must be based on expertise and dialogue in a dedicated forum.
In a few years, the Musée du Quai Branly has established itself as a reference institution for the decentralisation of views. In the middle of Paris, he materializes a kind of «capiton point» for the relation to others. It has become an essential window in France on extra-western cultures and a remarkable instrument at the service of intercultural dialogue: its exceptional success in attendance attests to this. And the recent exhibition “Exhibitions”, which I had the pleasure of inaugurating, dear Stéphane Martin, with you and Lilian Thuram, reminded us of the importance of the work on memory and on issues of dignity that is carried out in this public institution of my ministry.
The great sharings of our colonial histories no doubt explain the modest size of the Museum’s New Zealand collection, which nevertheless contains remarkable objects, such as the Maori capes, or the jade Tiki from the National Art Museum of Africa and Oceania. But beyond what history has left us, the Musée du Quai Branly has developed a remarkable cooperation with the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington, particularly for the organization of the exhibition “Maori – their treasures have a soul”, which we have just closed. This exhibition allowed visitors to discover a panorama of a very lively culture, marked by the will of a people to master its future. For three months, tales, dance, the art of Maori tattoo were invited to the Quai Branly.
The outcome of this joint venture for the repatriation of the Toi Moko in New Zealand gives us the opportunity, Madam Ambassador, to strengthen the professional ties between our institutions, and to consider developing scientific and cultural cooperation over the long term, following the same dynamic that already animates the Quai Branly Museum and the Te Papa Museum. Indeed, we are not only «bound by the game» - to use the beautiful title of the monumental photograph of the All Blacks offered to the Musée du Quai Branly in 2006.
Today, France is proud to join the 14 countries that have already committed themselves to this repatriation process initiated by the New Zealand government and the Maori people. By officially presenting these Toi Moko to you, we want to honour a memory, and a universal approach that fights against «forgetfulness» as Segalen spoke about.