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Is this the solution for Moai's resting place?


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To fully understand the debate surrounding Moai, the monolithic statue created by Easter Island's Rapa Nui, it is important to understand the spiritual connection that it holds versus the need for its historic preservation.

Image Credit: Flickr- Jay Galvin

The British Museum, where Moai currently resides, is deemed a ‘world museum' that creates interpretive displays which provoke a historical reaction. The Governor of Easter Island, however, is challenging the museum's reasoning for keeping the statue, and is demanding the return of their icon. He subscribes to the belief that it was taken when the island was vulnerable, and the Rapa Nui were unable to voice their opinion – their rights wholly ignored.

The argument heavily rests on the tradition that the stone maintains peace and harmony, despite the documented troubles the island faced prior to its removal. The museum maintains an ongoing discussion to solve the issue and protect the Moai whilst endeavouring to compromise with the Governor.

Of course, objects displayed in museums often act as a story-board linking the past to modernity, creating an immediate response to its heritage. Their final resting place is shared by thousands of others; their form interpreted within carefully constructed galleries. Likewise, Moai was transported to the British Museum in 1869 at a time when the island suffered the effects of warring cults and declining population. Its safety was threatened as colonisation interfered with the island's heritage. The ‘eyes of their idols' were no longer protecting the island's shores.

Acquisitions during this period were competitive and artefacts were offered as gifts for monarchs and leaders, often acting as proof of a country's cultural diversity to the wealthy.  A mere prop, perhaps, as countries continued to expand their collections.

Today the British Museum not only is freely accessible, but focuses on preserving and promoting the cultural origin. The expansion of new galleries, exhibitions and community projects reflect its cultural intentions and place in our society. However, the motives of the Victorian aristocracy greatly deviated from the curator's aims today.

In 2017, my role as an object-handler at the Manchester Museum gave an insight into how galleries engage the public's imagination and encourage an immediate response. Narratives are set out for inquiring minds, yet concurrently allow new narratives to be created. The close contact with the objects provide a tangible link to the past and encourage conversations that are not bound by age or culture. But beyond this, the shared experience creates a bond that holds more relevance than its original purpose.

Whilst it is important that artefacts remain in their natural surroundings, it is equally significant that they are preserved. The statue would have suffered if it had rested in its native home. A volcanic island, its heritage could easily have been lost - just as Pompeii had its its history buried for centuries.

Now though, the island's stable climate could accommodate the spiritual icon, securing its safety for years to come. Their belief system, once again restored at Easter Island, makes way for a renewed spiritual engagement.

With this in mind, the ideology of a shared-ownership could forge a bond between its native and manufactured habitat. Returning the statue to the island's coastline setting and allowing the British Museum to maintain its preservation would maintain an ongoing connection. The balance between rightful ownership and inherited may never be solved, but the value of the stories it provokes would remain protected. Which leaves us with one vital question – is Moai's importance completely lost to its people in its adopted resting place? 

Historical narratives shed light on this question – with the mere principal that they ignite something in one’s imagination, showing its purpose and value in our societies. The film Night at the Museum reflects this very relationship – the loss felt by the objects if removed, demonstrating the intimacy that museums create with those that actively seek to engage.

Setting aside, the provenance and ownership of the statue and a harmonious respect for its care and longevity may provide the conclusion for its fate.

Read more about Moai here

Lead image: James Miles

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