France debates returning Maori heads to New Zealand

29th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

France's National Assembly on Thursday began debate on returning up to 20 Maori heads to New Zealand, setting the stage for a vote next week to give back the tattooed warrior heads.

Between 15 and 20 mummified heads of Maori warriors are stored in several museums, notably seven or eight at Paris' Quai Branly, home to a big collection of tribal art set up by ex-president Jacques Chirac.

A museum in Rouen in 2007 got the ball rolling when it offered to return its Maori heads to New Zealand, but the government stepped in and put the decision on hold to look at a broader national restitution of the artifacts.

Museums in seven other cities including Marseille and Lyon along with the university of Montpellier all have Maori heads in storage.

The Senate upper house voted in June last year to return all of the heads under a bill that marks the first time that an entire group of artifacts will be taken from museums, as opposed to one disputed object.

A vote in the National Assembly is scheduled for Tuesday and all parliamentary leaders have said they will support restitution.

"In the future however, it is important that we have a way of preventing and settling the problems that arise between the government, local state authorities and institutions," said the minister for parliamentary relations Henri de Raincourt.

About 500 Maori heads have become part of museum collections around the world, but after New Zealand requested their return, some 300 have been sent back.

The Maoris kept the tattooed heads of warriors, believing they were keeping their spirit alive, but in the 19th century, they became prized European collector items.

Since 1992, New Zealand's Te Papa Tongarewa museum has requested that the heads be returned to restore dignity to the human remains.

© 2010 AFP

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