Face and shoulders of ancestor figure carved from basalt.

Moai

What are they?

The Museum has two moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the collection, Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava. Hoa Hakananai'a (meaning 'lost or stolen friend') is a colossal sculpture carved from basalt dating about 1000–1200. The sculpture is on permanent display in the Museum in Room 24, as part of the Living and Dying exhibition.

Moai Hava is also made of basalt and dates to between 1100 and 1600. It has been lent to museums in Liverpool and Manchester and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Moai Hava is not currently on display but is part of the study collection and can be accessed for this purpose.

Where are they from?

Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile.

How did the objects come to the British Museum?

The crew of a British survey ship, HMS Topaze, removed Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava in 1868. Hoa Hakananai’a was buried up to its shoulders in a house at Orongo, a ceremonial centre on the island. Commodore Richard Powell decided to bring it to Britain. A Rapa Nui man, known as Tepano, recalled the crew dragging Hoa Hakananai’a down to the beach, before floating it out to the ship on a raft. Later, he had the scene tattooed on his arm.

Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava were presented to Queen Victoria by the Admiralty and the Queen requested that they be given to the British Museum so that they could be appreciated by the public. 

What has been requested?

A request for the return of Hoa Hakananai'a was made in November 2018. Subsequently there has been discussion about developing a Memorandum of Understanding regarding possible collaborative projects.

Status of discussions

The Museum met with representatives of some of the Rapa Nui community in November 2018. They requested the return of the moai and extended an invitation to the Museum to visit Rapa Nui. This visit took place in June 2019. Skills-sharing and conservation projects were discussed which the Museum is keen to explore.

Following this meeting there has been continuing engagement, including an informal visit to London by a curator from the Museum on Rapa Nui in August 2019.

The British Museum's position

The Museum recognises the significance of the moai Hoa Hakananai’a for the Rapanui community today, and acknowledges the impact of its removal from the island in 1868 by the British crew of the ship HMS Topaze. The moai came to the British Museum in 1869 after the Admiralty presented it to Queen Victoria.  

The Museum is developing a long-term relationship with the community of Rapa Nui, bringing staff time and resources to collaborative research and reinterpretation of the Rapanui collections, and is developing curatorial initiatives with artists, scholars and other community leaders in Rapa Nui.

Hoa Hakananai’a represents one of the world’s great sculptural traditions, and is a witness to the global significance of Rapanui culture. Its presence increases public understanding of Rapanui history. The strength of the British Museum’s 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, or peaceful exchange.

Where else can moai be seen?

There are around 900 moai on Rapa Nui. Other examples removed from the island can be seen in Paris (France), Brussels (Belgium), Vina del Mar (Chile), Washington DC (USA) and Dunedin (New Zealand).  

Further reading

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Hoa Hakananai’a. British Museum Objects in Focus (The British Museum Press, 2004)