The British Museum is widely known for its abundant collection of cultural artifacts, the origins of which can be traced to all corners of the world.
One such item is the Hoa Hakananai’a, a remarkable Moai basalt sculpture native to the remote volcanic Easter Island, a territory of Chile in the southern Pacific Ocean.
The Hoa Hakananai’a monolith — greatly revered among the indigenous Rapa Nui people whose culture is deeply connected with Moai sculptures and who claim the Easter Island as their ancestral territory — was acquired by the British vessel HMS Topaze in 1868.
The Moai was then presented to Queen Victoria by Royal Navy captain Richard Powell, after which the queen passed it forward to the British Museum.
A century and a half later, the Rapa Nui are demanding the return of their revered relic.
For them, the monument contains the spirit and soul of an important ancestor. It personifies their distant relative and also has protective powers over the community.
The campaign of the Rapa Nui began in the summer of 2018, shortly after they gained self-governance of their ancestral territories. The Chilean government has also stepped in to support the Rapa Nui demand.
“Give us a chance so he can come back,” uttered in tears the governor of Easter Island, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, according to the Guardian, “you have our soul”. Rapu continued: “My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor,” following the historic meeting between the visiting Rapa Nui delegation in London and top representatives from the British Museum on November 20th.
“I am almost half a century alive and this is my first time,” Rapu added, referring to her first glimpse of the Hoa Hakananai’a.
The meeting did not clear the future for the sculpture, however Felipe Ward, Chile’s heritage minister, commended the meeting of the two sides as “pretty positive.”
The Easter Island delegation, besides having dedicated offerings and a dance ceremony to Hoa Hakananai’a on the day of the meeting, also proposed that they swap the original with a copy that can be carved by local artist Benedicto Tuki. It remains to see whether the British Museum, which deems the Moai sculpture as one of its best attractions, accepts such a proposal.
The name of Hoa Hakananai’a translates to “lost or stolen friend,” while the word Moai itself means “ancestor.” It is one of roughly 900 Moai sculptures produced by local islanders in between the 11th and 17th centuries. Each carved monument depicts a glorified figure from the Rapa Nui community, such as tribe leaders.
The statue residing in London, which measures about eight feet in height and weighs an astonishing four tonnes, is said to have intriguing and unique carvings. It has all the typical details of a Moai sculpture: a corpulent profile with a slightly frowning expression, and a single line representing the mouth.
The truly authentic details rest on the backside of the sculpture. Those include depictions of the island’s birdman cult as well as more ritualistic motifs related to the mysterious history of the place.
The indigenous Rapa Nui peoples further regard that Hoa Hakananai’a helped resolve fierce internal clashes between tribesmen on the island, many centuries ago.
Their trip to London was significant as this was the first time the British Museum has entered a dialogue since claiming ownership of the statue in the 19th century. The demand for the it’s return is only the latest of a series of such requests to have reached the museum, however.
“The British Museum has faced numerous claims to return artifacts to the countries they originate from, including the Parthenon marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria,” the Guardian further reports.
For the Rapa Nui people, the mission to bring back home lost Moai sculptures might not end in Britain. More of them are currently housed in several other museums around the world, including in Belgium, France, New Zealand, as well as the United States. But Hoa Hakananai’a is said to be one of the most spiritually important.
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The follow-up talks between the Rapa Nui and the British Museum are expected to take place on Easter Island.