British delegates travel to Easter Island to discuss fate of statues

Easter Island threatened by bad tourist behavior
Horacio Fernandez via Wikimedia Commons
Easter Island

A delegation from the British Museum has traveled to Easter Island to discuss calls for the return of its famous artifacts — including the towering Hoa Hakananai’a statue.

Easter Island, known locally as Rapa Nui and Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is a Chilean dependency in the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic island is known the world over for its moai, enormous paleolithic structures in the shape of human heads. According to the British Museum, around 887 moai were erected between 1100 and 1600 A.D.

Hoa Hakananai’a — which translates to “lost or stolen friend” — is a carved basalt statue 2.5 meters in height and estimated to weigh about 4.2 metric tons. The moai was removed from the island in November 1868 by the crew of the British ship HMS Topaze under the command of Commodore Richard Powell. On the ship’s return to London in 1869, it was presented to Queen Victoria who gave the statue to the British Museum.

In November 2018, the governor of Easter Island Tarita Alarcón Rapu traveled to the British Museum and made an appeal for the statue to be sent back to Rapa Nui as part of a loan agreement. It is one of the most revered of the island’s moai, which are believed to contain the spirits of ancestors.

“We all came here, but we are just the body — England people have our soul,” she told reporters at the time. “And it is the right time to maybe send us back (the statue) for a while, so our sons can see it as I can see it. You have kept him for 150 years, just give us some months, and we can have it (on Easter Island).”

Islanders and indigenous groups have also called for the statue to be returned.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum told CNN: “The Museum is delighted to have sent representatives to visit Rapa Nui and to return the courtesy extended by the visit of the group from Rapa Nui in November 2018. We hope we will be able to continue the cordial and productive discussions begun last November and to further develop and build relationships with people on the island.”

Traveling to the island are Lissant Bolton, the keeper of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of the Oceanic collections at the museum.

European museums are facing a raft of claims from governments around the world seeking the return of artworks and artifacts.

In March, a Norwegian museum agreed to return thousands of artifacts and human remains to Easter Island, after they were taken by explorer Thor Heyerdahl during two expeditions in the 20th century. The explorer’s son, Thor Heyerdahl Jr., signed an agreement with Consuelo Valdes, Chile’s minister of culture, arts and heritage for the repatriation of the collection at a ceremony in Santiago.

In November 2018, the British Museum struck a deal with the Benin Dialogue Group to return some of the Benin Bronzes — a collection of priceless artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin — back to what is now modern-day Nigeria for a temporary exhibition.

The museum has long been subject to demands from Greece for the return of the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures. It maintains that the artifacts were removed with the express permission of the Ottoman authorities of the time, and are “part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.”