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Mummified heads displayed in museums for decades

SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, June 29, 2009) – France is set to approve on Monday a new bill to return to New Zealand more than a dozen mummified Maori heads in what supporters say is a belated move to right the wrongs of European colonialism.

"The Maori heads that are still dispersed in European and US museums have a history that reminds us of the worst hours of colonialism," read the summary of the draft bill, which is due to be debated by the Senate in Paris.

The bill is due to get the go-ahead from French senators despite reservations within the government, a source inside the UMP ruling party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy told AFP ahead of the debate.

France's culture ministry blocked the return of a Maori chief's head from a museum in Rouen to New Zealand's national Te Papa Tongarewa museum in 2008 saying the move could mean that France would have to return mummies to Egypt.

The culture ministry has said however that it favours the current proposal.

Museums in Australia, Europe and the United States have already returned hundreds of the heads for burial according to Maori tradition in recent years.

"During the colonisation of New Zealand, Europeans became interested in these tattooed human heads, a Maori tradition, and private collectors began a real hunt for heads that became the object of a barbaric trade," the bill said.

"In order to satisfy demand, the tattoos on the heads that were initially reserved for warrior chieftains were also put on slaves who were then decapitated so their heads could be sold off," it added.

The British government in 1831 passed a law forbidding the export of the heads to Australia, which served as a hub for the Maori head trade.

The city of Rouen in October 2007 decided to return a Maori chief's head to New Zealand that had been kept in its museum since 1875.

The move was blocked in 2008 by then culture minister Christine Albanel amid fears of repercussions for France's rich collection of mummies.

"We don't want to open a Pandora's box," said Catherine Morin-Desailly, a centrist senator who is one of around 40 senators backing the bill.

But "there is a legal void concerning human remains," she said.

Returning the heads is "an expression of respect that we owe to the beliefs of a population that has been calling for the return of these heads in order to bury them in a dignified way that is respectful of Maori traditions," she said.

"Human remains cannot be considered like other cultural artifacts, belonging to the public domain and therefore untouchable," she added.

The bill's backers say numerous US, Australian and European museums have "already responded favourably to New Zealand's legitimate demand," criticising the fact that "France should be an exception to this general movement."

France is no stranger to this type of cultural controversy after initially refusing to return the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a slave dubbed the Hottentot Venus, to South Africa but eventually agreeing to do so in 2002.

Morin-Dessailly said 300 out of some 500 Maori heads held in museums around the world have been returned to New Zealand. France has around 15 of the heads including eight at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which opened in 2006.


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