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BM’s socials hit by campaign for repatriation

Charis McGowan, British Museum’s Instagram flooded with calls to return Easter Island statue, The Guardian, 18 February 2024

Chilean social media users target institution, forcing it at one point to close comments on posts.

The moai known as Hoa Hakananai’a in the British Museum. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images.

The British Museum is tackling an influx of social media trolls from Chile, who have flooded the museum’s Instagram posts calling for the return of a moai statue, one of the stone monuments from Easter Island.

The museum has two moai, which were taken from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) by British surveyors in 1868, and there have been longstanding demands for the British to return them to Rapa Nui, which is Chilean territory.

Since January, Chilean social media users have inundated the museum’s Instagram comment section, while also targeting its YouTube and Facebook pages.

In response, the museum was forced to close comments on recent Instagram posts but has since reopened most of them, although comments are still limited on certain posts.

The online campaign began after the Santiago-based influencer Mike Milfort encouraged his 1 million followers to take to their keyboards and demand the museum return the monoliths.

The subject of the stolen moai appears routinely in Milfort’s viral videos, generating a hashtag trend that reached as far as the Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, who expressed support during an interview on Chilean radio.

Yet the action has stirred criticism on the island itself. Pedro Edmunds Paoa, the mayor of Rapa Nui, said Boric “should not politicise something that is so holistically, spiritually and culturally important to us”.

Rapa Nui, which is 2,300 miles west of mainland Chile, has a distinct Polynesian identity.

Islanders have expressed a desire for greater autonomy from Chile, which annexed the island in 1888.

Edmunds Paoa is also critical of Milfort’s campaign and is concerned the moai have been reduced to an internet meme, motivated by self-promotion rather than genuine concern. “It’s an abuse [of the situation]”, he said.

The British Museum indefinitely deactivated comments on a post made in collaboration with the charity the Youth Project. A spokesperson said the decision was made for the “comfort and security” of the Youth Project.

“We welcome debate, but this has to be balanced against the need for safeguarding considerations,” a museum spokesperson said.

The museum said it had “good and open relations” with colleagues in Rapa Nui, having recently invited Rapa Nui collaborators to London for “various initiatives” in the past two years.

Rapa Nui is home to more than 1,000 moai statues, which are admired across the world for their size and the mystery of how they were made and transported. They were crafted to hold ancestral spirits, hundreds of years before European colonisation.

One of the moai in the British Museum – the Hoa Hakananai’a – is of particular significance to Rapa Nui. Its name translates as “the Stolen Friend”.

Uniquely carved from basalt and with petroglyphs on its back, the Hoa Hakananai’a was found in a sacred house at the site of an ancestral tradition called the Tangata manu(bird man).

During the Tangata manu, men from different Rapa Nui clans competed for island governance. The winner was the first to swim the open sea to a nearby island, retrieve an egg of the nesting sooty tern bird, and return to shore with the egg intact.

The Tangata manu was held annually to prevent war from breaking out between the clans, which is why the Hoa Hakananai’a is considered a profound symbol of peace.

In 2018, Rapa Nui issued a written request for the return of the two moai. In response, a reciprocal visit between island and museum representatives took place.

Last year, the island’s elders’ council, considered its cultural authority, wrote to King Charles to once again request the return of the moai. They have not received an answer.

“We are not ruling out that the Hoa Hakananai’a could stay in London and be our great ambassador,” said Edmunds Paoa. “But we need to firmly establish that its rightful owner is the culture of Rapa Nui.”