A hundred and fifty years ago, in early November 1868, HMS Topaze was anchored off Easter Island, now more commonly known as Rapa Nui. Led by Commodore Richard Powell, the crew found a statue buried up to its shoulders. It stood 2.4 metres high, beside statues that were typically 4 metres high (with some touching 10), making its removal a practical option. Armed with picks, ropes and timbers from the ship, 50 or so men excavated the sculpture islanders dubbed Hoa Hakananai’a, dragged it on a sledge from the top of a volcanic crater across three miles of rough ground, and floated it out to sea on a raft made with empty casks.
HMS Topaze returned to Plymouth with her unique cargo the following year. The statue arrived at the British Museum in October, where it joined the colossal Lion of Knidos (now prominently displayed in the Great Court) in a temporary shed under the front portico. It stood there for some years before moving inside, then out to Burlington Gardens, where the museum’s ethnographic department was then located. It subsequently returned to Bloomsbury and, via a brief stay in the Great Court, found a home in the Wellcome Trust gallery, which it now shares with objects from Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Bolivia and Alaska.
This extraordinary journey, a cultural adventure for the statue that posed a challenge to the artistic ideals of Victorian Londoners, may not yet be over. At least that is what Rapa Nui campaigners are hoping. Supported by the Chilean Foreign Ministry, they want Hoa Hakananai’a back. ‘We are not aware,’ says the British Museum, ‘of an official request to return any objects from the Rapa Nui people, the Easter Island Development Commission or the Chilean Government.’ Trustees, however, will know that this has long been an issue on the island, and is becoming more prominent as public disquiet with mainland Chile grows. Rapa Nui wants to take back control.
Hoa Hakananai’a may be the first statue to leave the island, and by general consent it is the best, but it is not alone. The British Museum has another less perfect specimen, also shipped in 1868. Two in mainland Chile and one in Brussels are taller than Hoa Hakananai’a, and eight others at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), the Musée de l’Homme (Paris), the Otago Museum (New Zealand) and the Natural History Museum, Santiago (Chile) are all over a metre tall – a head in Paris would be bigger if in 1872 it hadn’t been sawn off the body, which still lies on Rapa Nui.
There are 20 smaller stone statues around the world, and there may be more: a curator confirmed the Rapa Nui provenance of a rough figure in National Museum Cardiff as recently as 2016. Other transported pieces range from wooden figures and tablets bearing a unique island writing to obsidian tools and even human skulls. Among the first recorded items to leave the island are a ceremonial paddle now in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, and a carved wooden hand in the British Museum, both acquired when James Cook visited in 1774.
Many great museums have international collections, bought, exchanged or plundered in another age and now displayed or stored unseen. The material diaspora of the Rapa Nui is particularly poignant, as it occurred while the island’s population of thousands was reduced to little more than a hundred by disease, slavery, cultural oppression and land seizure. The scattered artefacts are voices from a very different time.
The meanings of the statues are informed a little by history, but lie mostly in the objects themselves and their archaeological contexts. In their journeys and distant homes, pieces like Hoa Hakananai’a have added new stories to the old, all of which can tell us about Rapa Nui’s past. Ironically, returning them to the island in many cases would make those stories hard or even impossible to recover, by repeating the fractures that occurred when they left.
For now at least what is needed is dialogue. Museums and collectors must research their Rapa Nui artefacts, talk to each other and especially to islanders, to break down barriers and pool expertise and curiosity. When Richard Powell sailed away with Hoa Hakananai’a, it’s not unlikely he genuinely believed – as did most at the time in Europe and North America – that such statues had been made by people who had little to do with anyone living on the island. He was wrong. The best way to fix that is to use every opportunity we have to get the story right.
Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology.