Chilean voices add to growing controversy surrounding British Museum
Published: Feb 21, 2024 12:57 AM
The British Museum Photo:VCG

The British Museum Photo:VCG

The British Museum in the UK finds itself in the midst of controversy, again. It is facing criticism from netizens in Chile for remaining obstinate in retaining two Chilean stone moai, also known as Easter Island statues, instead of returning them.

The two statues, called Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava, hold great cultural significance for the people of Chile. They were allegedly taken by Commodore Richard Powell from Rapa Nui (or Easter Island) in 1868 and gifted to Queen Victoria, who subsequently donated them to the British Museum in 1869.
Despite claims of indispensable care by the British Museum, Chilean social media users have protested on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. They called for the museum to return the two treasures. Mike Milfort, a social media influencer in Santiago, is a key figure in the dispute and he frequently discusses the moai in his TikTok videos. 

The videos have buttressed a recent resurgence of calls for repatriation on social media. Milfort, a vlogger who does not belong to any professional academia or cultural heritage organization, marks a new trend in which the public is now the main driving force in asking for relics to be returned by former colonizing countries. 

"It shows the local public's increased responsibility and awareness of its cultural history. Public opinion on the internet can effectively engage the attention of netizens from other countries who have also had such scars left by colonizing countries," Cao Bole, a cultural heritage management expert, told the Global Times on Tuesday.  

In response to the growing calls for the return of the stone moai, a spokesperson for the British Museum told CNN that the British Museum "welcomes debate" and that it has "good and open relations" with the community of Rapa Nui, citing a handful of visits they have hosted since 2018 and invitations to visit the British Museum. 

It is now more than six years since Rapa Nui authorities requested the repatriation of their moai statues, which uniquely delineate two distinct cultural phases in their history, but the British Museum has thus far refused to budge.

The British Museum's mellow but evasive attitude is also a sign of colonial ignorance and arrogance, which has been seen in other cases. 

In 2022, both Monica Hanna, the director at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, and Zahi Hawass, former minister of tourism and antiquities of Egypt, organized petitions in an effort to retrieve the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt. Also, Victor Ehikhamenor wrote an op-ed titled "Give Us Back What Our Ancestors Made," demanding the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. 

The British Museum's refusal to honor requests for restitution shows a disregard for the history of colonial exploration and a lack of respect for cultural heritage. The museum has remained steadfast in upholding its stance despite storms of controversy. This indicates their resolve to act in accordance with the British Museum Act of 1963, prohibiting the permanent return of most objects in its collection. 

However, the complaints from various different countries highlight not only the ongoing debate about the issue of ownership, but also the emerging consensus in international society to demand restitution over colonial theft. 

Unfortunately for the British Museum, the international community's attack on their arrogant and insensitive attitude appears set to continue.

Following the recent London Fashion Week, part of which took place beside the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, they have been subject to criticism for the way cultural relics served as a background for the fashion display. 

It seemed that cultural relics that should serve purposes of research and education were being turned into props to make money. This is unacceptable, especially when many of those "props" did not originally belong to the UK.   

Lina Mendoni, the minister of culture of Greece, expressed her disappointment, stating that the ancient statues "were used as a backdrop, which belittles their universal value." An explosion of controversy followed about the trivialization of the sculptures. 

The article is contributed by Zeng Zirui