The statue from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the British Museum is a beautiful, captivating object. It is a “moai”. Its name is Hoa Hakananai’a (loosely translated to “Stolen Friend”, sometimes spelled Hoa Haka Nanai’a). It was removed from the island in 1868, and it arrived at the British Museum in 1869. Today, it holds a central position in one of the museum’s main galleries.
Hoa Hakananai’a has been studied in detail. The best recent work was published by Pitts, et al. (2014), which gives a detailed chronology of the moai’s movements, elements, and evolution. The British Museum guidebook specifically for the moai, written by Van Tilburg (2004), is out-of-print but easily can be found secondhand.
Exhibition Label in the British Museum
The exhibition label in the British Museum’s “Living and Dying” gallery reads:
Basalt statue known as Hoa Hakananai’a
(probably ‘Stolen or hidden friend’)
Easter Island/Rapa Nui, Chile (South Pacific), about 1400
This statue, representing an ancestral figure, was possibly first displayed in the open air. It was later moved into a stone house at Orongo, the centre of the birdman cult. Low-relief designs carved on the back are associated with this cult. The statue seems to have been used in both contexts to express ideas about leadership and authority.
Donated by HM Queen Victoria
The label does not tell visitors Hoa Hakananai’a was removed in 1868 by the British frigate HMS Topaze, captained by Richard Powell. By custom, collections made during British navy voyages in this period were gifted to the nation. Powell presented the moai to Queen Victoria, who passed it to the British Museum.
Some groups on Rapa Nui, and the island’s governor, have called for repatriation of the moai. Repatriation was advocated in a fine documentary by Rapa Nui resident, Leonardo Pakarati, The Spirit of the Ancestors: Journey to Bring Home a Stolen Artifact (2015, Pragda). Currently Pakarati’s documentary is available on the streaming service, Kanopy. A review comments on the film. The British Museum engages with communities on Rapa Nui to varying degrees of satisfaction among participants, but repatriation is not currently endorsed by the Museum’s trustees.
Should the British Museum Return the Moai to Rapa Nui?
Yes. The British Museum should offer to return the Moai if return is requested by the government of the island. The British Museum is custodian of its collections on behalf of the British people. Repatriation in this case would be the action of one living culture to return an object of active importance to another living culture.
I have not investigated the circumstances of how Captain Powell took possession of the moai, other than to note accounts differ on who originally decided the moai could be excavated and removed. I don’t particularly care, in this case, whether the moai’s removal was some kind of gift, or some kind of a purchase, or simply a removal based on an act of possession. Neither does it matter to me that there are over one thousand other moais on the island. I don’t accept the implication this is supposed to mean there should be enough moan on the island to share a few with outsiders.
For me, the British comparison might be memorials to the two great wars of the 20th century. Nearly every town, village, and hamlet in Britain has commemorative devices to those tragic periods. The same is true for many public institutions. These memorials are striking to outsiders who encounter them. They are invested with deep meaning by some and slight meaning by most. They are not the sort of thing a government official can gift to others or sell off. Neither are they the sort of thing most British people would want to see summarily removed from site, then exported halfway around the world for display at the whim of others. These memorials have an active importance in our living culture. Their removal would tear apart an integrated web of meaning-filled connections. No stretch of the imagination is required to appreciate other people of the world have similar, equally valid, feelings for monuments in the world around them.
A Plea: Can the Moai Remain as Ambassador?
Hoa Hakananai’a must be returned to Rapa Nui if the island’s government asks for it. This is up to the people of Rapa Nui to decide for themselves, and it’s not a matter for Britains or the British government.
In their deliberations, I beg the people of Rapa Nui to consider a compromise. Is it possible for Hoa Hakananai’a to remain in London as a guest or an ambassador from the island community?
Millions of people visited the British Museum each year before the pandemic. Millions will visit again each year after the pandemic. Moai Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most exciting, most engaging, and most evocative items on display in the museum. Many who see and photograph the moai want to know more about it, know more about the island’s history, and know more about the people whose lives have grown up around the moais. They treasure this encounter.
- Hoa Hakananai’a inspires.
- Hoa Hakananai’a animates.
- Hoa Hakananai’a adds life to those who encounter it.
Rapa Nui is one of the places on the globe very few outsiders will ever have the privilege to visit. For all my desire to be one who does, I simply cannot justify the environmental loading based on tourism alone.
Pakarati’s affective documentary asks if Hoa Hakananai’a is a prisoner. Possibly. Instead, perhaps, Hoa Hakananai’a is an explorer in the outside world. It advocates for Rapa Nui. It shares what is good about the island’s community. There is sacrifice in its absence to be sure. There are rewards, too. Perhaps Hoa Hakananai’a could stay in London to continue that important work.
If Hoa Hakananai’a is called home to Rapa Nui, perhaps another moai can be encouraged to travel to London as new ambassador. Perhaps it, too, can live in the friendly space of the British Museum. Perhaps, too, there are reasons for other moais to explore elsewhere on our shared globe. Every museum of the world, I suspect, would welcome with open arms a moai visitor. They would welcome the opportunity for fellowship and substantial exchange with the people of Rapa Nui, too.
Perhaps there is room for compromise. Whether or not compromise comes, Hoa Hakananai’a must be returned to Rapa Nui if the island’s government asks for it.
Note on Spelling and Translation
I follow spelling as presented in Pitts et al (2014) [“Hoa Hakananai’a” and “moai”], and note these are at variance with Pakarati (2015) [“Hoa Haka Nana’ia” and “moia”]. I don’t have the understanding to parse these differences, so I am trusting Pitts et al. on cultural sensitivity and translation.
- Pitts, M., Miles, J., Pagi, H., & Earl, G. (2014). Hoa Hakanai’a: a new study of an Easter Island Statue in the British Museum. The Antiquaries Journal, 94:291-321. doi:10.1017/S0003581514000201.
- Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. 2004. Hoa Hakananai’a (London: British Museum Press). ISBN 9780714150246.