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Easter Islanders Demand British Museum Return ‘Stolen’ Moai Statue

The Rapa Nui people believe that repatriation would help close ‘the sad chapter’ of 19th-century looting

Moai statues in Easter Island, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Moai statues in Easter Island, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Moai statues on Easter Island, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

The indigenous inhabitants of Easter Island – the Rapa Nui people – have called on the British Museum in London to hand back a Moai statue, which was taken away 150 years ago. The island, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located 3,700km off the coast of Chile. Rapa Nui authorities have now asked the Chilean government to support them in their efforts to reclaim the basalt sculpture.

The Hoa Hakananai’a statue (meaning ‘stolen or hidden friend’ in the Rapa Nui language), which stands 2.4 metres tall, is said to have been taken by Richard Powell, a Royal Navy captain of HMS Topaze, in 1868. It was presented to Queen Victoria as a gift, who later donated it to the British Museum. Museum authorities insist that there is ‘great public benefit’ to the statue remaining in the collection, and said that there had been no official request for the museum to return the work.

Hoa Hakananai’a statue, British Museum, London, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: James Miles

Hoa Hakananai’a statue, British Museum, London, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: James Miles

Hoa Hakananai’a statue, British Museum, London, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: James Miles

However, the Rapa Nui population believe that the Moai sculptures – often built in honour of tribal leaders – hold a spiritual force. This mana is said to be important for the protection of the local community. Rapa Nui authorities also say that the statue’s repatriation would be ‘an important symbol in closing the sad chapter’ of rapacious European plundering in the 19th century.

The island’s collection of 900 humanoid statues are mostly carved from volcanic ash, dating from the sixth to 17th centuries. The Hoa Hakananai’a is distinct in its basalt composition. The Rapa Nui people, who have taken on the conservation of the local archaeological heritage, are also seeking the return of another Moai statue held in Paris’s Quai Branly museum.

The Easter Island statue joins a host of other claims to artefacts held in the British Museum’s collection, including the Elgin Marbles. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently pledged to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon sculptures to Athens. Don’t miss professor Paul Cartledge writing on the case for their repatriation: ‘By clinging on to ‘their’ marbles, the British Museum risks appearing to be culturally nationalistic, undermining its claim that preserving them is good for world culture.’

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