PARIS (Reuters) - The French parliament on Tuesday approved the restitution of tattooed, mummified heads of Maori warriors to New Zealand, centuries after they were brought to Europe and displayed as exotic oddities.
The decision is part of a broader effort by some European museums to return artifacts plundered by explorers, giving in to pressure from communities around the world who want to bring home their dead and lay them to rest.
“From a ritual showing the respect of a tribe and family toward their dead, the mummified heads became the object of a particularly barbaric trade due to the curiosity of travelers and European collectors,” Parliamentary Relations Minister Henri de Raincourt said when he presented the law last week.
It is the first time that a French law has authorized the return of an entire category of museum items, rather than a specific object, and marks a success for activists campaigning for the restitution of bodies and antiquities.
U.S. and European museums have long resisted such claims, fearing they would lead to the departure of prized mummies and other archaeological treasures.
New Zealand has demanded the return of the heads since the 1980s. The dispute became a national issue in France only when the Rouen town council voted in 2007 to give back a head kept in its Natural History Museum since 1875.
That decision was annulled, with France’s Culture Ministry saying at the time it could not be made at the local level.
The new law, which was approved almost unanimously, will apply to more than a dozen Maori heads kept in French museums. They will be shipped to the Te Papa museum in Wellington before being handed to different tribes for burial.
Featuring elaborate tattoos as a sign of strength and courage, heads of Maori warriors were traditionally displayed to their tribes as objects of veneration.
Western explorers brought them to Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, resulting in a thriving trade. Hundreds of such heads still lie in the depths of U.S. and European collections along with other body parts.
In 2002, France handed back 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 Musee de l’Homme in Paris until 1974.