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Mummified Maori head is returned

A French museum returned the mummified and tattooed head of a Maori to a delegation from New Zealand yesterday, a belated gesture to restore dignity to the first of 16 such human heads once displayed as exotic curiosities.

Maoris sang traditional songs during a ceremony at Rouen City Hall to hand over the head – which spent 136 years in a Normandy museum. "It's truly a solemn and symbolic day," New Zealand ambassador Rosemary Banks said.

For years, New Zealand has sought the return of Maori heads kept in collections abroad, many of which were traded for weapons and other goods. Maoris believe their ancestors' remains should be respected and left undisturbed in their home area.

Michelle Hippolite, a Maori spiritual leader and co-director of the museum in Wellington where the head will be taken, welcomed the return. She said that the other 15, at museums all around France, will be returned in 2012.

The Rouen Museum tried once before, in 2007, to return the head, but was stopped at the last minute by the French culture ministry. France considered human remains conserved in museums to be part of its cultural or scientific heritage. A law was passed last year allowing the return of the heads.