This guy needs a return ticket.

Photographer: Mark Gilbert/Bloomberg

Put U.K.'s Stolen Easter Island Statue on Next Boat Home

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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The British Museum contains a stone statue known as Hoa Hakananai'a. It was hand carved from basalt 400 to 900 years ago on the island of Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island.  Hoa Hakananai'a was kidnapped from that distant outpost of Chile 148 years ago by British Navy Commodore Richard Ashmore Powell. Dominating Room 24 on the museum's ground floor, the moai is magnificent, mysterious -- and totally out of place.

The world's museums -- mostly those of rich countries with a history of overseas pillaging -- are stuffed with artifacts plundered from other countries. It's time they started being returned to their rightful homes where they can be seen in their native context, even if that means some viewers miss out on seeing culturally significant objects while others have to add more stamps to their passports.

Right now, for example, there's a cultural fight brewing between France and the U.K. over a ring that was allegedly owned by Joan of Arc. A French businessman, Philippe de Villiers, paid almost 300,000 pounds ($423,000) for the jewelry at a London auction last month and took it home, proclaiming that "it's a little bit of France that has returned." The U.K. authorities, however, say such a significant article needs a special export license, and have demanded its return.

Joan of Arc was a French martyr burned at the stake for heresy by the English in 1431 after leading the French army to victory at Orleans during the Hundred Years' War. After years of French campaigning, she was canonized in 1920. It's clearly ridiculous to claim that the ring belongs anywhere but France, no matter what the rules say and no matter how long it's been away from its birthplace.  

Earlier this month, Jesus College in Cambridge agreed to remove a bronze cockerel statue known as the Benin Bronze from its dining hall after pressure from students. The statue had been stolen from Nigeria in the 19th century; the college authorities are debating returning it to its home. It's a debate that should be decided in favor of Nigeria, and never mind that the country is wrestling with Boko Haram's violent seven-year campaign to introduce Islamic law to the country of about 180 million people.

There's merit in the argument that the world's treasures belong to the world, rather than particular countries whose borders are often more the result of maps being redrawn in postwar horse-trading than historical cultural identity. But trying to decide which parts of the globe can be trusted as custodians of their own history and which can't echoes the racist colonialism that sanctioned the thievery in the first place.

The most famous example of cultural confiscation is probably the Elgin Marbles, 88 slabs pilfered from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin at the start of the 1800s and currently gracing the British Museum in London rather than the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Greek efforts to repatriate the sculptures have thus far failed; the U.K. authorities are adamant that Elgin was acting with "the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities."

Earlier this month a British politician, Andrew George, introduced a motion to the House of Parliament to consider returning the marbles. For its part, the Greek government says it prefers diplomacy to legal action, although it did commission a report last year that recommended exploring a court case.

The British Museum website talks of "the complex history of the Parthenon" and claims that "archaeologists worldwide are agreed that the surviving sculptures could never be re-attached to the structure." The linguistic acrobatics, though, suggest to me that the museum trustees are suitably embarrassed at the position they find themselves in:

The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (approximately half of what survive from antiquity) to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. The Parthenon sculptures in London, that represent 30 percent of the original scheme, are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilization in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced -- and was influenced by -- the other civilizations that it encountered.

That argument for context strikes me as muddleheaded. Last Thursday morning, I paid my respects to Hoa Hakananai'a in the "Living and Dying" room of the British Museum (his name, ironically, means "stolen or hidden friend" according to the museum's documentation.) Bathed in artificial light and sharing zero resonance with the Eskimo display to his left, his indignity was compounded as a phalanx of passing schoolchildren cried out "Dum Dum!" in reference to a moai-based character in the Ben Stiller movie "Night at the Museum."

The thing is, I'm lucky enough to have visited Rapa Nui, the most remote inhabited island in the world. I've seen the moai in their natural habitat, staring impassively across the island with their backs to the sea, some of their brethren half-buried on the slopes of Rano Raraku, yet more unfinished and still tethered to the volcanic rock as if their sculptors disappeared with their carvings only half completed. None of them, by the way, share the petroglyphs you can see carved on the back of the British Museum example -- which is precisely why Commodore Powell chose to enslave this particular example of the island's stone citizens.

There's absolutely nothing in the British Museum display that hints at the enormous significance the stone statues had for the islanders who made them, no reference to the mystery of why they were carved or how they were transported, no discussion about the anthropological dispute that's still raving about why the island became a failed state. In short, there's no context; Hoa Hakananai'a just looks profoundly sad, a massive curio marooned 8,500 miles (13,600 kilometers) from the only place where his existence makes any sense.

If the museum feels returning Hoa Hakananai'a to his birthplace would leave an ugly hole in its collection, technology can fill the vacuum. Modern three-dimensional modelling would allow it to engineer a life-size replica, indistinguishable from the original to the tourists taking selfies. It's a solution that could be replicated in wealthy museums around the world, enriching the collections of their smaller peers and undoing centuries of cultural piracy without leaving their display cabinets empty and their plinths naked.

The British Museum recently appointed a new director -- German art historian Hartwig Fischer from the Dresden State Art Collections. He described his new employer as "a model of public engagement, critical scholarship and international outreach." It would be wonderful if that sense of outreach could encompass the return of stolen treasures, starting with giving the Elgin Marbles back to Greece -- and letting Hoa Hakananai'a sail home to Rapa Nui.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net