Face and shoulders of ancestor figure carved from basalt.

Moai

What are they?

The Museum cares for two large stone moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island): Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava. Moai are megalithic statues often placed upon ahu (ceremonial platforms). They are said to be the aringa ora, the living faces of the ancestors.

Hoa Hakananai'a (meaning 'lost, hidden, or stolen friend') is carved from basalt and dates from about 1000–1200. The back of the statue features intricate petroglyphs associated with the tangata manu, or birdman religion. This moai is on permanent display in the Museum in Room 24, as part of the Living and Dying display.

Moai Hava (translated as 'dirty, repudiated, rejected or lost') dates to between 1100–1600 and is made of coarse basalt (possibly ma'ea pupura). Moai Hava has been carved to show arms, torso and head. At the bottom of the statue's torso are carved hands and a loin cloth (hami). In recent years, this moai has been lent to museums across the country for exhibitions at the World Museum Liverpool, the Manchester Museum, and most recently in 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Not currently on permanent display, Moai Hava can be accessed by appointment as part of the Museum's study collection.

Where are they from?

Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava originate from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), also referred to as Te Pito o Te Henua ('the navel of the World'), and settled by skilled Polynesian navigators around 1000. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile.

In the mid-1800s, Hoa Hakananai'a was buried up to his shoulders in a house named Taura Renga at the ceremonial village of Orongo, near Rano Kau. It is believed that this house was the second placement of this moai, and that he could have previously stood on an ahu-like structure (ceremonial platform) before his ritual function changed. Inside the ceremonial house at Orongo, the statue was more strongly associated with the tangata manu, or birdman religion, which developed around 1400, well after Hoa Hakananai'a was carved. Orongo was the epicentre of this new ritual practice establishing a competition among Rapanui chiefly groups to obtain the first egg of the sooty tern from the nearby islet of Motu Nui. The chiefly victor became the tangata manu (birdman) and represented the patron god of the royal lineage for one year. 

Moai Hava was buried in the ancient gathering place of clans and in proximity with burial sites, in an area now known as Mataveri.

How did the objects come to the British Museum?

In 1868, the crew of a British survey ship, HMS Topaze, visited Rapa Nui with Commodore Richard Powell as Captain.

The crew was led to the location of Moai Hava at Mataveri, and collected this first moai on 2 November 1868. Soon after, Hoa Hakananai'a was discovered in the house at Orongo by two crew members searching the village. Commodore Richard Powell decided to unearth this second moai, with the intent of bringing them both to Britain. The stone house was dismantled, and Hoa Hakananai'a transported on a sledge to shore. A Rapanui man, known as Tepano, subsequently recalled that the crew, followed by a Rapanui chief, dragged Hoa Hakananai'a down to the beach, before floating it out to the ship on a raft. Later, this chief had the scene tattooed on his arm.

Upon the return of HMS Topaze to England in 1869, Hoa Hakananai'a was offered to Queen Victoria by the Admiralty. The Admiralty were, until 1964, a government office that managed naval affairs, and they had been made aware of the existence of the moai by Commodore Powell. Queen Victoria subsequently donated Hoa Hakananai'a to the British Museum. On 6 October 1869, the arrival of the statue at the Museum was officially reported to the Trustees, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the complex history of Hoa Hakananai'a. With him was also Moai Hava, who was donated directly to the Museum by the Admiralty.

What has been requested?

In July 2018, a written request for the return of Hoa Hakananai'a on behalf of the people of Rapa Nui was made by the Council of Elders (Consejo de Ancianos), CODEIPA (Comisión de Desarrollo de la Isla de Pascua/Development Commission of Easter Island) and the municipality of Rapa Nui. The letter stated the intention by the co-signers to 'initiate official talks with the United Kingdom to succeed in repatriating Moai Hoa Haka Nanai'a' [sic], later including the second statue, Moai Hava. In addition, the letter contained a request for a meeting at the Museum, and an invitation to Rapa Nui to visit relevant sites.

Following this request, a delegation from Rapa Nui was invited to the Museum. This official visit by representatives of the Rapanui community took place in November 2018.

Status of discussions

While in London in November 2018, plans for a reciprocal visit to Rapa Nui were made to continue discussing the request. This visit took place in June 2019. British Museum staff were taken to see various cultural sites to better understand aspects of Rapanui culture, the significance of the statues, and the community's aspirations and took part in a series of conversations about the moai. All parties involved at the time of the visit agreed to commit additional resources to strengthening the relationship between the Museum and the community, including through the development of a Memorandum of Understanding and through active collaborations with Rapanui colleagues.

The Museum welcomed a visit to the collections in August 2019 by a staff member of the Father Englert Anthropological Museum, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui. In 2020–2021, while the COVID pandemic brought international travels to a halt, a programme dedicated to collections from Oceania (the Benioff Oceania Programme) focused research efforts on Rapa Nui in order to improve access to and documentation of associated collections, in conversation with Rapanui colleagues. In 2022 and 2023, several Rapanui colleagues and collaborators were invited to the Museum for various initiatives, advising on international working groups, conducting research in archives and collections, and co-creating a soundscape offering for the Rapanui tao'a (treasures) at the Museum. These events have strengthened relationships with the community and laid the foundation for further collaborations.

The British Museum's position

The Museum recognises the significance of Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava for the Rapanui community today, and acknowledges the impact of their removal from the island in 1868.

The Museum is developing a long-term relationship with the community of Rapa Nui, to bring staff time and resources to collaborative research and reinterpretation of the Rapanui collections for the benefit of the community and the wider world. We plan to continue developing mutually beneficial projects with artists, scholars and other community members in Rapa Nui.

Hoa Hakananai'a represents one of the world's great traditions, and is a witness to the global significance of Rapanui culture. Its presence in London influences public understanding of the history of Rapa Nui, its people's artistic achievements past, present and future, and the challenges faced by the community today. The strength of the British Museum collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect – whether through trade, migration, conquest, peaceful exchange or other interactions – both in the past and today.

Where else can moai be seen?

There are around 900 moai on Rapa Nui. Other moai removed from the island can be seen in museums across the world such as at the Musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac in Paris, France; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, USA; the Otago Museum in Dunedin, New Zealand; the Natural History Museum in Santiago, Chile, and the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels, Belgium.

Further reading

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Hoa Hakananai'a. British Museum Objects in Focus (The British Museum Press, 2004)
  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Remote Possibilities: Hoa Hakananai'a and HMS Topaze in Rapa Nui (The British Museum Research Publication, 158, 2006)
  • Leonardo Pakarati and Paula Rossetti, Te Kuhane o te Tupuna (film The Spirit of the Ancestors; Mahatua Producciones, 2015, http://www.mahatua.cl/index.html)
  • Adrienne L Kaeppler and Jo Anne Van Tilburg, The Iconic Tattooed Man of Easter Island (Mana Press, 2018)