The moai at the British Museum is one of the institution’s most popular exhibits.

Trustees of the British Museum

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.8, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • People, Places, and Environments • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

SPOTLIGHT

Ancient Civilizations

Was This Statue Stolen?

A British explorer took a statue from an island in the Pacific Ocean 150 years ago. Now the islanders want it back.

As You Read, Think About: Who should own ancient artifacts?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a tiny, remote island whose most famous residents stand guard along the edges of the rocky terrain. Most of them face inward so they can watch over the island’s other inhabitants, but a few look out to sea to guide travelers to land. They are hundreds of years old and weigh an average of 14 tons each.

These legendary islanders are actually massive stone statues called moai (MOH-eye). There are more than 800 of them on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui (RAH-puh NOO-ee) after the indigenous people who settled there centuries ago. The 14-mile-long volcanic island is part of the South American country of Chile, located 2,200 miles away.

The statues were carved by the Rapa Nui people and are between 400 and 900 years old. The sculptures—known for their oversized heads—represent Rapa Nui ancestors, and they are considered sacred by descendants of the ancient civilization who still live on the island today.

However, a few of the moai are missing from their native home. One statue has been on display at the British Museum in London, England, for about 150 years and is one of the institution’s most popular exhibits.

But that may not be the case for much longer. Rapa Nui leaders recently announced that they want the statue back. Their request is not unique. Many museums around the world are facing similar pressure to return artwork and other historical objects to their homelands.

The issue has reignited a debate among art experts and government officials: Do ancient artifacts belong in the places they came from or should they be displayed in popular museums where millions of people can appreciate them?

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a tiny, remote island. Its most famous residents stand guard along the edges of the rocky terrain. Most of them face inward so they can watch over the island’s other inhabitants. A few look out to sea to guide travelers to land. They are hundreds of years old. And they weigh an average of 14 tons each.

These legendary islanders are actually huge stone statues called moai (MOH-eye). There are more than 800 of them on Easter Island. The island is also known as Rapa Nui (RAH-puh NOO-ee) after the indigenous people who settled there centuries ago. The volcanic island is 14 miles long. It is part of the South American country of Chile, located 2,200 miles away.

The statues were carved by the Rapa Nui people and are between 400 and 900 years old. These sculptures, known for their oversized heads, represent Rapa Nui ancestors. They are considered sacred by descendants of the ancient civilization who still live on the island today.

However, a few of the moai are missing from their native home. One statue has been on display at the British Museum in London, England, for about 150 years. It is one of the institution’s most popular exhibits.

But that may not be so for much longer. Rapa Nui leaders recently announced that they want the statue back. Their request is not unique. Many museums around the world are facing similar pressure to return artwork and other historical objects to their homelands.

The issue has renewed a debate among art experts and government officials. Do ancient artifacts belong in the places they came from? Or should they be displayed in popular museums where millions of people can appreciate them?

Wojtek Buss/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

HANDS OFF! The statues suffer wear and tear when tourists touch them.

A Moai Goes Missing

The Rapa Nui people arrived on what is now Easter Island around 800 A.D. and thrived there for hundreds of years. During that time, stoneworkers carved the moai out of large blocks of volcanic stone. Today, some of the statues appear to be just giant heads but in reality are buried up to their shoulders under centuries of dirt. The tallest moai stand at more than 30 feet.

The moai on display at the British Museum is nearly 8 feet tall. It’s known as Hoa Hakananai’a (HOH-uh hah-kah-nah-NIGH-uh). The statue is one of only about a dozen moai made of a volcanic rock called basalt. Its back features carvings of figures with human bodies and bird beaks, which experts think represent an important part of an ancient Rapa Nui religion.

The captain of a British ship removed the statue from Easter Island in 1868 after making a deal with a Rapa Nui chief to take it. (At least that’s what the captain claimed.) He took the statue back to England, where he presented it to Queen Victoria as a gift. She then gave it to the British Museum, where it’s been on display ever since. 

The Rapa Nui people arrived on what is now Easter Island around 800 A.D. They thrived there for hundreds of years. During that time, stoneworkers carved the moai out of large blocks of volcanic stone. Today, some of the statues seem to be just giant heads. But in reality, they are buried up to their shoulders under centuries of dirt. The tallest moai stand at more than 30 feet.

The moai on display at the British Museum is nearly 8 feet tall. It is known as Hoa Hakananai’a (HOH-uh hah-kah-nah-NIGH-uh). That statue is one of only about a dozen moai made of a volcanic rock called basalt. On its back are carvings of figures with human bodies and bird beaks. Experts think those figures represent an important part of an ancient Rapa Nui religion.

The captain of a British ship removed the statue from Easter Island in 1868 after he made a deal with a Rapa Nui chief to take it. (At least that is what the captain claimed.) He took the statue back to England. There, he presented it to Queen Victoria as a gift. She then gave it to the British Museum. It has been on display there ever since.

Plea for a Statue’s Return

Although museums around the world are filled with treasures from distant lands, officials from some countries argue that certain artifacts were removed unfairly—or even illegally—by explorers. That has led to many long disputes over where those objects truly belong (see “Finders Keepers?,” below).

Most present-day Rapa Nui people believe Hoa Hakananai’a was stolen. To them, the statue is an important part of the island’s history that should be returned.

“The moai represent great leaders of our past,” says Sergio Rapu, who grew up on the island. “They are a connection that we have to our ancestors.”

The idea that ancient artifacts should be returned to their countries of origin is gaining support throughout the world. Last year, France’s President Emmanuel Macron called for thousands of artworks in French museums to be returned to the countries in Africa from which they were taken without permission.

“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” he said during a recent visit to the continent.

Museums around the world are filled with treasures from distant lands. But officials from some countries argue that certain artifacts were removed unfairly, or even illegally, by explorers. That has led to many long disputes over where those objects truly belong (see “Finders Keepers?,” below).

Most present-day Rapa Nui people believe Hoa Hakananai’a was stolen. To them, the statue is an important part of the island’s history that should be returned.

“The moai represent great leaders of our past,” says Sergio Rapu, who grew up on the island. “They are a connection that we have to our ancestors.”

The idea that ancient artifacts should be returned to the countries they came from is gaining support throughout the world. Last year, France’s President Emmanuel Macron called for thousands of artworks in French museums to be returned to the countries in Africa they were taken from without permission.

“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” Macron said during a recent visit to Africa.

Finders Keepers?

Several countries around the world are demanding that museums return artifacts they say were stolen from them.

Elgin Marbles

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Taken From: Greece
Current Location: British Museum, London, England
Dispute: In 1801, a British official named Lord Elgin took dozens of marble sculptures from the Parthenon. The 2,300-year-old temple in Athens is one of the world’s most famous ancient sites. Elgin took the sculptures to England, claiming he had permission to do so, but Greek leaders say he stole them.

Taken From: Greece
Current Location: British Museum, London, England
Dispute: In 1801, a British official named Lord Elgin took dozens of marble sculptures from the Parthenon. The 2,300-year-old temple in Athens is one of the world’s most famous ancient sites. Elgin took the sculptures to England, claiming he had permission to do so, but Greek leaders say he stole them.

Statue of Nefertiti

A Media Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Taken From: Egypt
Current Location: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Dispute: In 1912, a German archaeologist discovered a painted sculpture of Queen Nefertiti, who ruled Egypt nearly 3,400 years ago. The archaeologist had permission to take some items back to Germany. But for nearly 100 years, Egyptian officials have claimed he hid this important discovery from them.

Taken From: Egypt
Current Location: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Dispute: In 1912, a German archaeologist discovered a painted sculpture of Queen Nefertiti, who ruled Egypt nearly 3,400 years ago. The archaeologist had permission to take some items back to Germany. But for nearly 100 years, Egyptian officials have claimed he hid this important discovery from them.

The Case for Museums

But many experts believe certain artifacts should remain in museums. For most people, a museum offers the only chance to see famous works of art in person, they say.

That’s one reason officials at the British Museum say they should keep Hoa Hakananai’a. Few people can make the long, expensive journey to Easter Island. In fact, only about 100,000 people tour the remote stretch of land each year. Meanwhile, roughly 6 million people visit the British Museum annually—many to see the moai. 

“We believe that there is great value in presenting objects from across the world,” says Hannah Boulton of the British Museum. And Hoa Hakananai’a is “among the most popular and most photographed exhibits.” 

Many experts also say that fragile ancient treasures are safer in museums. On Easter Island, for example, several of the moai are deteriorating because of centuries of rain and high winds. Some of the statues have been vandalized, while other moai are harmed by tourists who touch them while taking selfies.

But many experts believe certain artifacts should stay in museums. For most people, a museum offers the only chance to see famous works of art in person, they say.

That is one reason officials at the British Museum say they should keep Hoa Hakananai’a. Few people can make the long, expensive journey to Easter Island. In fact, only about 100,000 people tour the remote stretch of land each year. Meanwhile, about 6 million people visit the British Museum annually. Many go there to see the moai.

“We believe that there is great value in presenting objects from across the world,” says Hannah Boulton of the British Museum. And Hoa Hakananai’a is “among the most popular and most photographed exhibits.”

Many experts also say that fragile ancient treasures are safer in museums. On Easter Island, for example, several of the moai are in bad shape and getting worse. Some of the damage has been caused by centuries of rain and high winds. Some of the statues have been vandalized. Other moai are harmed by tourists who touch them while taking selfies.

What’s Next?

Still, the majority of Easter Island’s nearly 6,000 residents want Hoa Hakananai’a back. 

Last fall, representatives from the island met with British Museum officials in London to formally request the statue’s return. Although nothing was decided, both sides agreed to continue the discussion.

For their part, the Rapa Nui people say they understand the importance of sharing the moai with the world. But they still believe that this special statue—and other moai on display in the United States, France, Belgium, and New Zealand—should come home.

“There is a balance,” says Rapu, “in trying to preserve our culture while also teaching others about it.” 

Still, the majority of Easter Island’s nearly 6,000 residents want Hoa Hakananai’a back.

Last fall, representatives from the island met with British Museum officials in London. They formally requested the statue’s return. Nothing was decided. But the two sides agreed to continue the discussion.

For their part, the Rapa Nui people say they understand the importance of sharing the moai with the world. But they still believe that this special statue should come home. They want the same for other moai on display in the United States, France, Belgium, and New Zealand.

“There is a balance,” says Rapu, “in trying to preserve our culture while also teaching others about it.”

Write About It! Does Hoa Hakananai’a belong on Easter Island or in the British Museum? Using details from the article, write an argument essay explaining your point of view.

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