A childhood quest leads to Easter Island—and soul-searching about objects taken far from their homes

As a child, I was captivated by the mystery of Easter Island after reading a short story in my fourth-grade reader. This was 1975, so Easter Island was still a distant and perplexing place, full of unanswered questions as weighty as the statues that dotted its slopes—the first commercial flight to the island had landed just 8 years before. Even today, Easter Island remains the most physically remote inhabited island on earth.

The reconstructed ceremonial house at Orongo, on Easter Island, where a moai, or statue of a giant head—now in the British Museum—once stood.

The reconstructed ceremonial house at Orongo, on Easter Island, where a moai (statue) once stood. Known as Hoa Hakananai’a (“Stolen or Hidden Friend”), the statue has been on display in the British Museum, in London, since 1869.

The statue known as Hoa Hakananai’a (“Stolen or Hidden Friend”) aboard the HMS Topaze in 1868.

Hoa Hakananai’a aboard the HMS Topaze in 1868.

Noting my interest, my parents took me to the British Museum to see the moai, or statue, that had been removed from Easter Island by the British in 1868. Known in Rapa Nui—the islanders’ name for their home, their language, and themselves—as Hoa Hakananai’a (“Stolen or Hidden Friend”), the statue was carved between AD 1000 and 1650, one of many massive sculptures on the island created by master craftsmen to honor ancestors (according to the leading theory). Carved in the quarry, most were transported up to six miles away and placed on altars. Like all moai, the fantastically large head of Hoa Hakananai’a is immediately arresting. In 2010, it was featured in the BBC series “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” which drew from the collection of the British Museum.

How the statue came to England is an unusual yet all-too-familiar story. In 1868, while on Easter Island for surveying work under the command of Richard Ashmore Powell, a career military man, a crew removed the impressive moai from its position in a ceremonial house in Orongo. The sailors loaded the four-ton basalt sculpture onto the HMS Topaze and sailed back to England, where the statue was given to Queen Victoria as a gift from the Lords of the Admiralty. The Queen in turn gave the moai to the British Museum in London in 1869, where it remains on view to millions of visitors today.

The famed moai of Easter Island, in their natural habitat.

The famed moai of Easter Island, in their natural habitat.

This past Christmas, 38 years after reading the short story and visiting the museum, I traveled to Easter Island and saw the reconstructed ceremonial house where the British originally found Hoa Hakananai’a. I felt grateful for my parents, my grade-school teacher, and the employees of the British Museum, who had given me the life-long gift of curiosity and sparked a desire to marvel at the wonders of human creativity with my own eyes. At the same time, standing at this site, I felt highly conflicted. As a modern museum professional committed to the respect of cultural patrimony, I struggle with the fact that great objects have been removed from their original contexts. It’s a struggle one doesn’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to confront, yet it was never more evident than here, where an object so commanding was no less profound in its absence.