A number of Maori skulls in a macabre collection of almost 800 human skulls in Sweden are expected to be returned to Te Papa Museum in Wellington this year.

The skulls have been left gathering dust for decades at the Karolinska Institute in Solna, just north of Stockholm.

The collection was put together during the 19th century and early 20th century by a father and son who devoted themselves to scientific racism by measuring a so-called cranial index, believing they could classify differences between people by measuring their skulls.

A handful of Maori skulls came to the institute in 1890 from a zoologist, Conrad Fristedt, who described in a book how he would plunder burial graves and sell his finds to Sweden.

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"No one here has chosen to be part of the collection," a lecturer at the institute, Olof Ljungstrom, told the daily Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

About 350 of the skulls are believed to be from outside Sweden.

Talks between Te Papa and the institute to return the Maori skulls to New Zealand began in 2008, leading the institute to agree late last year to return them.

Sweden's Minister of Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, said Government approval for the return of the skulls should be made this year.

Te Papa's repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini said the museum was extremely proud of the relationship it has built with Swedish institutions to return Maori ancestral remains to their homeland.

"This relationship began in 1990 with a repatriation from the Ethnology Museum in Stockholm, and more recently with repatriations from two Gothenburg museums in 2009, and Lund University in 2011.

"We welcome reports that more ancestral remains will be returning home and look forward to receiving formal confirmation from the Swedish Government," he said.