Far From Home

Should a museum return a giant statue to the island where it was carved long ago?

Andia/ UIG via Getty Images

Some of Easter Island’s moai are more than 13 feet tall.

Each year, about 100,000 people visit Easter Island to see its famous giant statues, called moai (MOH-eye). There are more than 850 moai on the small island, which is part of Chile. The island’s native people, the Rapa Nui (RAH-puh NOO-ee), carved the moai between 400 and 900 years ago. The statues honored important people in their society.

But it’s a moai on the other side of the world in London, England, that has a lot of people talking. The stone giant is one of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum.

That may not be the case for much longer. This summer, the government of Chile announced that it will try to get the statue back from the museum.

Where Does It Belong?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The statue is called Hoa Hakananai’a (HOH-uh hah-kah-nah-NEYE-uh). It was removed from Easter Island in 1868 by the captain of a British ship. He is said to have made a deal with a Rapa Nui chief for the statue. The captain brought the moai back to England and presented it to Queen Victoria. She then gave it to the British Museum so that the public could view it.

But present-day Rapa Nui believe the statue was actually stolen from Easter Island. And they want it back.

“[It’s] significant to the entire community,” says Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist with the Easter Island Statue Project. She has been studying the moai for more than 25 years.

Van Tilburg points out that Hoa Hakananai’a is rare. It’s one of the few moai made of a rock called basalt. The statue also has unusual carvings on its back. Some show birdmen—humans with bird’s beaks. Many experts believe these carvings represent an ancient island religion.

But British Museum officials think the statue should remain where it is. More than 6 million people visited the museum last year. For most, it was likely the only chance they’ll ever have to see a moai in person.

“We believe that there is great value in presenting objects from across the world,” a spokesperson for the British Museum said.

Simon Balson/Alamy Stock Photo

Hoa Hakananai’a on display at the British Museum

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