The British Museum has found itself at the center of a digital storm, initiated by an influx of online activists from Chile. These individuals have taken to the museum’s social media platforms, especially Instagram, to voice their demands for the return of a moai statue, a significant cultural artifact from Easter Island, to its rightful home.

The controversy revolves around two moai statues that were removed from Rapa Nui, known globally as Easter Island, by British explorers in 1868. These statues have been the subject of continuous requests for repatriation to Rapa Nui, an island that falls under Chilean sovereignty.

This online movement gained momentum in January when Santiago-based digital influencer Mike Milfort rallied his 1 million followers to pressure the British Museum through social media. Milfort has been vocal about the issue of the moai, frequently incorporating it into his content and sparking a widespread hashtag movement. This campaign has even garnered acknowledgment from Chile’s President Gabriel Boric, who showed his support in a radio interview.

However, the campaign has faced criticism within Rapa Nui itself. Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa has voiced concerns about the political angles being taken on an issue deeply rooted in the island’s spiritual, cultural, and holistic values. The island, lying 2,300 miles west of the Chilean mainland, cherishes a unique Polynesian heritage and has aspirations for increased self-governance, separate from Chile which annexed it in 1888.

Edmunds Paoa also criticized the online campaign led by Milfort, arguing that it trivializes the moai by turning them into mere internet memes for personal publicity, thereby disrespecting their profound cultural significance.

The British Museum’s response to this digital uproar included temporarily disabling comments on its Instagram posts, especially on a post made in collaboration with the Youth Project, to protect the participants’ comfort and security. This action was extended to other collaborative posts that were targeted by the campaign.

Despite these challenges, the museum maintains that it is open to debate and dialogue, emphasizing its ongoing relationship with Rapa Nui representatives. This includes inviting collaborators from the island to London for various projects over the last two years.

Rapa Nui is famed for its over 1,000 moai statues, celebrated worldwide for their monumental scale and the enigmatic history of their creation and transportation. These statues are believed to embody ancestral spirits, a tradition predating European colonization.

One statue, Hoa Hakananai’a, holds particular significance. Known as “the Stolen Friend,” it was carved from basalt and features unique petroglyphs. It was discovered in a sacred site associated with the Tangata manu, a tradition aimed at preventing clan wars through a challenging competition involving the retrieval of a sooty tern bird’s egg.

In recent years, Rapa Nui has formally requested the return of the moai statues, including a direct appeal to King Charles. While responses are pending, the island’s leaders express openness to the idea of Hoa Hakananai’a remaining in London as a cultural ambassador, provided its ownership by the Rapa Nui culture is unequivocally recognized.

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