The French parliament has voted to return around 15 tattooed and mummified heads of Maori warriors to New Zealand, ending years of debate over the restitution of the human remains.
The warrior heads are stored in several French museums, including seven at Paris’s Quai Branly, home to a major collection of tribal art set up by former president Jacques Chirac.
Only eight lawmakers in the 577-seat National Assembly voted against the measure that would remove the warrior heads from the permanent collections of several museums.
The Maoris preserved 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.
The national history museum in the western French city of Rouen offered in 2007 to return its Maori heads to New Zealand, but the government put the move on hold to look at a broader national restitution of the artifacts.
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 category of artifacts will be taken from museums, as opposed to one disputed object.
Museums in seven other French cities including Marseilles and Lyon along with the university of Montpellier all have Maori heads in storage.
About 500 Maori heads were at some point part of museum collections around the world, but some 300 of them have been sent back since New Zealand requested their return.
Under the bill championed by the Nouveau Centre (New Centre) party aligned with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP, the heads will be taken out of museum storage with the next year and given back to New Zealand.
“This is the ethical thing to do,” Henri de Raincourt, the minister responsible for relations with parliament, said in opening the debate over the restitution last week.
The decision was welcomed by the New Zealand government, with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples saying it was “a matter of great significance” to Maori.
“Maori believe that, through their ancestors’ return to their original homeland, their dignity is restored, and they can be put to rest in peace among their families,” he said.
Widely supported by all parties, the restitution debate had given way to some soul-searching in France, which prides itself as a world centre of art and culture.
“These are much more than simple museum pieces,” said lawmaker Michele Tabarot. “These are human remains and some of these people were deliberately murdered to satisfy a despicable trade.”
“Should we consider these human remains as artistic, cultural or scientific artefacts that are important enough to be kept in our collections, or above all, as parts of the human body?” asked deputy Colette Le Moal.
Already in 2002, French lawmakers had decided after much debate to return to South Africa the “Hottentot Venus”, the name given to Saartjie Baartman, an African slave whose remains were on display at a Paris museum.
Then president Nelson Mandela had formally asked France to return the remains.