British Museum Kept a Statue for 150 Years. Now, Easter Island Wants It Back.

The government of Chile said it would ask for the return of “Hoa Hakananai’a,” which was taken by British sailors in 1868, on behalf of Easter Island’s indigenous people.

LONDON — “Hoa Hakananai’a” — “Lost or Stolen Friend” in English — is one of the British Museum’s most popular exhibits. Standing 7 feet, 9 inches tall, the statue’s prominent brow and deep-set eyes are the backdrop for thousands of tourist selfies every year.

But now the government of Chile has announced that it will form a committee to try to recover the 1,000-year-old statue for the Rapa Nui, the indigenous people of Easter Island. Chile annexed the island, which lies more than 2,200 miles from its coast, in 1888.

The Chilean Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Tuesday that “Hoa Hakananai’a” was a “tangible link” to the island’s history. It is “sculpted in basalt — stone that stands out for its hardness and elegance,” the ministry said, and also has unique carvings on its back.

A spokeswoman from the Chilean Embassy in London would not provide further details on any formal request for the statue’s return.

Chile’s taking on the Rapa Nui cause comes as European museums are facing growing pressure to repatriate objects to their countries of origin. President Emmanuel Macron of France, having declared that “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums,” has appointed two advisers to plan how to return African objects.

The British Museum is no stranger to pressure to return items from its collection — Greece has waged a long campaign for the restitution of the so-called Elgin marbles. “We believe that there is great value in presenting objects from across the world, alongside the stories of other cultures at the British Museum,” a spokeswoman for the museum said in an emailed statement.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist and director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest-running research project into the statues, said by telephone interview that British sailors were taken to a sacred area of the island in 1868, and found “Hoa Hakananai’a” inside a building, buried up to its torso. They bartered for it, and dragged it to their boat in a procession led by a dancing chief, Ms. Van Tilburg said.

“However, this was done within a context where the Rapa Nui people were suffering a great deal of deprivation,” she added.

Ms. Van Tilburg said that she had excavated two statues on Easter Island with carvings on their backs — the only others with such decoration among some 1,000 statues. But “Hoa Hakananai’a’s” carvings are unique, she added, as is the type of rock it is carved from.

“Hoa Hakananai’a” represents “the entire culture that inspired it,” Ms. Van Tilburg said, adding that she understood why the Rapa Nui want it back.

But asked whether the statue should be returned, given that it is an ambassador of sorts for the Rapa Nui culture, Ms. Van Tilburg replied, “I am in two minds.”

“If I was asked as a professional researcher to come down on one or the other point of view, it would be that of the Rapa Nui people,” she said.

At the British Museum on Wednesday, many tourists were unaware of the controversy, but, when it was explained to them, they held equally mixed views.

Astrid Allard and Ines Oukkate, both 20 and visiting from France, were taking a photo of the statue with their fingers posed in such a way that it looked like they were picking its nose. “I think both sides can have arguments, but it’s been here for a very long time, right?” Ms. Allard said. “I think more people can see it here.”

But Ms. Oukkate disagreed. “If they want it back, I think it’s better for them to have it,” she said. “Museums are here to show respect to other countries by showing things to the public.”

If a country asks for its items back, and the museum refuses, the respect is gone, she added.

“True,” Ms. Allard replied, adding, “Argh — it’s a tough debate.”

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