Mummified Maoris head home from France

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The French parliament yesterday voted overwhelmingly to return to New Zealand the mummified heads of 15 Maori warriors which have been held in French museums for more than two centuries.

The decision, following pressure from New Zealand over more than 20 years, is the first time that France has agreed to hand over a whole category of museum exhibits. The Senate, or upper house of the French parliament, voted to return the heads last June. Yesterday the national assembly agreed a new law by 457 votes to 8.

France, like other European countries, has traditionally resisted the repatriation of ancient body parts in case it led to the loss of Egyptian mummies and other treasures. However, the French minister for Parliamentary Relations, Henri de Raincourt, said when he presented the law on the Maori heads that their retention by different provincial and national museums could no longer be justified.

"From a ritual showing the respect of a tribe and family towards their dead, the mummified heads became the object of a particularly barbaric trade due to the curiosity of travellers and European collectors," he said.

In 2002, France agreed to return the body of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was taken to Europe in the 19th century and exhibited as the "Hottentot Venus". Parts of her body had been displayed at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1974.

The decision by the French parliament should make it easier for future governments to "declassify" similar museum artefacts which have been declared "inalienable" parts of the national heritage.