British Museum Accused of Silencing Critics About Easter Island Statue

The British Museum‘s collection continues to receive scrutiny after last year’s thefts scandal prompted renewed requests for the repatriation of items.

Only a few days after the institution opened an exhibit of 10 recovered gems, a Chilean social media influencer’s campaign brought additional attention on moai statues from Easter Island and called for their return.

Mike Milfort encouraged his 1 million followers to aggressively respond to or “spam” the British Museum’s posts on Instagram with “return the moai” comments. As a result, the institution turned off comments on that post.

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Easter Island was what the first European visitors called the island of Rapa Nui, located 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile. According to BBC News, the island’s large basalt statues statues are believed to represent the spirits of prominent ancestors, and date back to 1400 CE and 1650 CE.

The nearly-eight-foot-tall carved basalt statue in the British Museum, identified as Hoa Hakananaiʻa or “Lost, hidden or stolen friend,” is one of two moai Commodore Richard Powell gifted to Queen Victoria in 1868. The second moai, gifted by the captain of HMS Topaze, is known as Hava.

The Queen donated the two statues to the British Museum in 1869.

Freya Samuel, a museum decolonization and digital engagement consultant, told the Art Newspaper the institution’s decision to turn off comments “effectively censored” people’s voices. “Social media is a powerful vehicle for ordinary people to show that they really do care about repatriation.”

The British Museum’s social media activity has prompted previous backlashes, such as a post made on Twitter in solidarity with the George Floyd protests, which caused many commenters to call on the institution to account for the stolen items in its own collection.

Of the choice to turn off comments on this new new post, a social spokesperson for the museum told the Art Newspaper: “Comments were only deactivated on one social media post. We welcome debate, but this has to be balanced against the need for safeguarding considerations, especially where young people are concerned.”

The spokesperson also cited the British Museum Act 1963, which prevents the institution from removing objects from the collection.

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