Amidst the dominance of Brexit in the news, a quieter debate is being reignited. The Chilean territory of Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) is asking for the repatriation of statues known as Moai from around the world. Currently, the focus is on a statue known as Hoa Hakananai’a, or ‘Stolen friend’, which is currently housed in the British Museum.
Moai are not simply statues; they were carved between 500 and 1000 years ago by indigenous Islanders who believed that each sculpture was the embodiment of the spirit of an ancestor. Hoai Hakananai’a was given to Queen Victoria in 1869 by the captain of the HMS Topaze, Richard Powell.
Requests for repatriation are not unfamiliar to the British Museum. The Elgin Marbles, for one, are a constant source of tension between the British Museum and Greece, with the latter claiming that they were unlawfully looted by the Earl of Elgin in the nineteenth century, and should therefore be returned to Athens. Many of the artefacts displayed there are under constant scrutiny. Some people believe that all art belongs to the country where it originated, even if that country does not exist in the in the same form as when the art was created.
For me, although I do not wish or feel able to be too categorical about the “rightful place” of every single work of art, I do feel that the repatriation of Hoa Hakananai’a is vital. While sometimes debates of repatriation are framed as the flexing of a nationalistic muscle from all parties, I think that this request for the return of the Moai is far from that. Although Rapa Nui is a territory of Chile, its delegations make these requests independently of the Chilean government. Many of its inhabitants feel spiritual connections to the Moai, and have increasingly come to feel indignation at the fact that their heritage, especially in the form of such a unique Moai (Hoa Hakananai’a is made from basalt rather than volcanic ash) is being displayed in such a far flung place.
The British Museum’s response has been to emphasise how Hoa Hokananai’a’s location in London makes the artefact much more accessible to visitors, highlighting the fact that the statue is one of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum. This argument about accessibility, along with the restoration and preservation that museums can offer, is one of the most prominent in favour of museums retaining culturally significant artefacts. But this does not really hold true for the Moai. There are already about 900 of these statues on Rapa Nui itself; they were always intended to be displayed in the open air. Accessibility often equals the capacity to inform new people about something with which they were previously unfamiliar, but Rapa Nui sculptor Bene Tuki has offered to swap Hoa Hakananai’a for an exact replica.
It is not as if the British Museum is getting a bad deal here, especially considering that the statue was gifted to the British crown by somebody to whom it simply did not belong. But the Moai artefacts have real spiritual significance to the modern day Rapa Nui people, and surely, whatever our spirituality or beliefs, it is only right that we respect the spiritual beliefs of others.
A museum is a strange place, a strange concept. We take them for granted today, but in the way that they make art and artefacts accessible, they also represent a strange dismemberment of the object from its context. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it should be remembered that some artworks and objects have a current and living context of which they are a very welcome and even requisite part. And although Rapa Nui is not the same as it was 500 years ago, it is possibly the only place on earth where the people who live alongside the Moai feel a connection with them on more than an artistic level.
And it is about more than just this. Visiting the Ancient Egyptian sections of the British Museum, an unease began to creep up over me. No-one really holds the same beliefs that the Ancient Egyptians did any more, but the display of mummies and religious artefacts, cobbled together behind glass cases, did not seem right to me. Ancient Egyptians believed that mummifying the body and burying it alongside precious artefacts was important for the preservation and continued happiness of the soul in the afterlife. Regardless of whether we believe this now, we all have our own superstitions (many people and religions hold them around death and burial), and surely there is something disrespectful about displaying those carefully buried bodies as if they are merely curios to be gawped at?
And this is the same problem that we find with the British Museum’s retention of Hoa Hakananai’a. Museums can be truly wonderful spaces for learning and appreciation, but in removing objects from their context, they sometimes remove those objects without sensitivity and without a realisation of all the connotations that will be lost. And now the British Museum has a chance to put this right. Having Hoa Hakananai’a on display is the equivalent of taking one of the stones of Stonehenge and putting it indoors for millions of visitors to admire every year. We wouldn’t do this with Stonehenge, so why do we continue to do it with one of the Moai? The answer is an uncomfortable one, but only by facing it can we start to right historical wrongs and afford other spiritualities the respect they deserve.