in News | 21 NOV 18

Governor of Easter Island Makes Emotional Plea for British Museum to Return Spiritually Important Sculpture

‘We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul’

in News | 21 NOV 18

Hoa Hakananai'a, Wellcome Gallery, British Museum, 2012. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: James Miles

In an emotional plea to the British Museum on Tuesday, the governor of Easter Island (known as Rapa Nui in the local language) has asked the British Museum to return one of their most spiritually important stone figures saying: ‘We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul’.

The seven-foot basalt moai figure, known as ‘Hoa Hakananai’a’, which means ‘lost or stolen friend’, was taken without permission from the remote Chilean island in 1868 by the British frigate HMS Topaze. It was then presented to Queen Victoria, who gave it to British Museum in 1869. It now stands at the entrance to the Wellcome gallery.

The moai, which date from between 1100 and 1600 CE, were made by ancestors of the islanders to remember dead relatives. Many islanders believe that the statues are an incarnation of their ancestors or tribal leaders. There are hundred scattered across the remote Pacific island, however this statue is one of only 14 statues made from basalt, with other examples carved from softer volcanic stone.

A delegation from the island, including Carlos Edmunds, president of the council of Rapa Nui elders, Felipe Ward, Chile’s minister for national property and governor Tarita Alarcón Rapu, travelled to London this week to make the case for the statue’s return.

‘My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor,’ Rapu told reporters, after meeting with delegates from the British Museum. ‘I am almost half a century alive and this is my first time’ he continued. ‘I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him.

Ward said: ‘This is the first of many conversations we will have. We are looking forward to the next, and probably the second one will be in Rapa Nui, where we invited the authorities of the museum.’

This is the first time that the British Museum, which controversially holds objects of significance to many cultures, has agreed to hold talks about the sculpture. However, talk has thus far only concerned loans, rather than the return of ‘Hoa Hakananai’a’.

A spokesperson from the museum said: ‘The museum is one of the world’s leading lenders and the trustees will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions’.

‘Hoa Hakananai’a’ is free to view and is among the most popular and most photographed exhibits with our six million visitors each year’.