Manchester Museum’s exhibition about the statues of Easter IslandMaking Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues from Easter Island has been receiving some good feedback from the public and is even inspiring some visitors creatively as the image of the hand-decorated envelope above from a Belgian enquirer shows. In this respect the exhibition is stimulating people in a similar way to the Lindow Man temporary exhibition a few years ago. The latter prompted an artistic outflowing of poetry, drawings and even 3D models that showed people’s deep-seated need to respond in very personal ways to topics that either inspire or move them.
Since opening in early April visitors have left a lot of complimentary and constructive comments about the exhibition and many of them, especially but by no means always children, have added drawings and doodles showing the moai. The drawings perfectly capture the enigmatic quality of Easter Island statues and I am now kicking myself for having used lined paper in the visitors’ book. We only touched briefly upon the inspiration that Rapa Nui’s statues gave to a generation of modern sculptors, including Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Henri Gaudier Brzeska (1891-1915) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). One visitor to the exhibition commented “The heads remind me of Anthony Gormley’s statues on Crosby Beach in Liverpool – very interesting. Fab exhibition. Keep up the good work.”
Perhaps the strong appeal they make to our artistic taste is because we have already been influenced by seeing European works-of-art inspired by them. They reflect back onto the statues the aspects of modern art that grew out of exposure to the so-called ‘primitive’. This would explain why some visitors embellish their drawings of the statues by adding a surrealist moustache with curled over tip or show the statue smoking a joint.
It is perhaps not so surprising that there are so many sketches of the heads: lots of simple line-drawing profiles express the visitor’s appreciation of the Museum’s work.
Moai by Josh
Some children who have been to the exhibition on a school trip have since come back with their families. Take the Davies family who left the comment: ” McKenzie visited with school on Friday. He loved it and so he’s brought us back to teach us what he has learnt” (25/05/15).
Birdman Race competitor?
It’s not just about the statues, however. The exhibition explores the deeper meanings the different kinds of stone had for the islanders and we show samples of volcanic rock. This clearly struck a chord with one visitor, as the photo below shows.
Young Archaeologists’ models of the statues from Rapa Nui or Easter Island
The subject of April’s meeting of the Young Archaeologists Club at Manchester Museum was the latest temporary exhibition Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues from Easter Island. After showing the children around the exhibition we set up a creative session. The children made models of the moai or Easter Island statues using grey self-drying clay for the volcanic tuff of the heads and bodies and red for the scoria of the pukao or hats. The line-up in the photograph above shows how engaged the children were, and, for adults, it provided a then topical satyrical side-swipe at the line-up of candidates involved in the debates leading up to the General Election…
Forming the heads and bodies out of the grey self-drying clay was challenging but the pukao were easier because they could be rolled out and then cut to size. They always remind me of the coconut sweet in the Liquorice All-Sorts packets (the cylindrical one with liquorice down the centre). The children used pieces of plastic drinking straw to attach the heads to the bodies to hold them in position until they dried (otherwise the heads sag). The children captured the long ears and noses of the statues and some even made separate eyes to insert in their statues, using the red clay for the irises.
As leaders we always find that the best sessions are those that have a practical activity of some sort. The children are more interested and engaged than if we spoke to them as part of a presentation. At the end we lined up the various models to copy the moai that can be seen on the ahu or ceremonial platforms on Rapa Nui or Easter Island.
Making moai at Manchester Museum
The Young Archaeologists Club meets at Manchester Museum on the second Saturday of the month but children have to registered with us in advance before they can attend for insurance reasons and each session has to be booked separately beforehand because we have more members than we can accommodate all at once.
Almost a year after it was first mooted and after six months’ hard work Making Monuments on Rapa Nui the Statues from Easter Islandopened with a Private View on Tuesday evening. About 300 people attended the official opening to hear speeches from Dr Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, Prof Colin Richards, from the Department of Archaeology, and Mathias Francke, Chilean Deputy Ambassador, and to see the exhibition for the first time.
The subject of the exhibition is monumentality on Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Perhaps the exhibition should have been called ‘monu-mentality’ because the first thing visitors see on entering the Museum foyer is the Easter Island statue called Moai Hava, which is on loan to us from the British Museum as part of its National Programme. The loan of Moai Hava and a number of other objects from the British Museum collection was kindly funded by The Dorset Foundation. Behind Moai Hava the entrance to the temporary exhibition gallery is marked by a large wall image showing Rapanui islanders ‘walking’ a statue or moai with the aid of ropes. This and other striking images used in the exhibition first appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in July 2012. However, we are not saying this is the only way statues were moved, even if the technique has been shown to be a practical way of moving large and heavy stone statues by carrying out experimental archaeology.
Once in the temporary exhibition gallery visitors see a large wall-mounted screen with a sequence of still photographs showing various sites and views on Rapa Nui. This part of the exhibition is an orientation gallery. A satellite image of the Pacific Ocean in one corner shows the extreme geographical isolation of the island. That Polynesian voyagers found it is testament to their astonishing sea-faring skills, but even they must have struggled to get there because no pigs or dogs – traditional sources of protein – have been found on Rapa Nui by archaeologists. Presumably they ate all their animals except for chickens en route. This part of the story is illustrated by a Maori wooden canoe prow from Manchester Museum’s collection. This is strictly speaking outside the historical time period and no-one really knows strictly speaking what a Polynesian voyaging canoe looked like but it illustrates the concept handsomely, together with a wooden bailer.
In comparison the Europeans who arrived off the coast of Rapa Nui during the 18th century were no more than Johnny-come-latelies. This period of the island’s history is shown by a copy of Captain Cook’s published journal on loan from the University’s John Rylands library, portraits of Cook and Rapanui islanders and a reproduction of the famous de Vancey print showing the Comte de la Perouse and members of his crew investigating a statue whilst simultaneously having their hats stolen and pockets picked by the Rapanui. Opposite, there are display cases showing a selection of items from popular culture that explore the influence of the statues. They include American comics, a First Day stamp showing Moai Hakananai’a, the other Easter Island statue taken away by the HMS Topaze expedition of 1868, and a DVD copy of the film Rapa Nui (1994).
In the adjacent display case ‘Museum Island’ the importance of tourism in the island’s economy is highlighted by a selection of souvenirs, including a copy of a RongoRongo script inscription, collected by one of the Museum’s curatorial assistants when she went to Easter Island for a holiday.
The last panel in the orientation gallery shows excavations at Puna Pau, the quarry where the famous cylindrical top knots or pukao were obtained. It makes the point that if we are to answer some of the many questions that still remain about the island we have to look to archaeology to answer them. Wall-hangings covered in RongoRongo script characters create a screen through which visitors pass in order to enter the main exhibition gallery.
The first view of the gallery is jaw-dropping: visitors are greeted by two 2.5 metre (10 feet) tall replicas of moai complete with their pukao or topknots, one of them with its eyes inserted. The replica statues were sculpted by Chris Dean of Freeform Studios Ltd with the help of Peter Spinks of Creative Models. It appears that eyes were only inserted into the statues’ eye-sockets during ceremonies or festivals. This would have activated them; once removed the statues returned to dormancy. The Rapanui invoked the intervention of powerful ancestors through the statues.
The first display case of objects from the island under the heading ‘Polynesian Gaze’ explores the concept of seeing in this culture. Stone and wooden figures, the latter with bone and obsidian eyes, a wooden staff with an anthropomorphic terminal and a pair of replica coral and scoria eyes based on those found next to a fallen moai by Rapanui archaeologist Sonia Haoa prepare the visitor for the model of the topknot quarry at Puna Pau, on which they see carved another pair of eyes. It is as if the Rapanui were showing that this is not just an inert material to be carved, it is a living entity, exposure to which was considered dangerous or tapu (the origin of our word taboo) unless appropriate rituals were observed.
A large free-standing replica pukao complete with a petroglyph of a Rapanui vessel gives an impression of the size of the statue which it would have decorated. In the course of carving pukao from the quarry it has been estimated that the Rapanui removed some 1000 cubic metres of volcanic scoria. Head wear was important in this culture but the red stone made the pukao even more significant because red represents power, vitality and authority (or mana) to Polynesians. Some fourteen pukao never left the vicinity of the quarry. Previously they were interpreted as having been abandoned in transit because of some kind of disaster that overcame the islanders. However, work by the British team of archaeologists now shows that the pukao were wayside markers intended to warn workers of their imminent arrival at the quarry and to give them an opportunity to prepare themselves for exposure to tapu and also to shed their pollution from working in the quarry on the return journey.
These ideas are developed further in a section called Ao and Po (pronounced ‘Ow’ and ‘Paw’). Volcanic craters had special significance to the Rapanui as well as Polynesians more generally as a passageway between the realm of the everyday (Ao) and the realm of shadows and spirits (Po). It is no accident that the Rapanui selected stone from extinct volcanoes at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau to make their statues and topknots. Polynesians and Rapanui tattooed themselves as a way of protecting themselves against exposure to tapu. In fact the Rapanui are some of the most heavily tattooed people in Polynesia. Two tattooing ‘pens’ used to mark women’s bodies in Fiji are shown in this section of the exhibition. This section also sets up an equivalence between tattoos marked on flesh and petroglyphs carved onto the island’s rocks as a means of protecting by creating a decorative wrapping and membrane-like surface that effectively ‘shields’ the person and the island. In their relationship with the island the Rapanui appear to have thought of it and its constituent rocks as a living entity. The exhibition has been enriched by the work of Prof Colin Richards and his colleagues at University College London, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands and Islands.
The concept of the island as a living being may help to explain aspects of the carving of the moai. Rather than extract blocks of rough stone to be worked at the destination the Rapanui carved the statues or moai complete in the quarry. A number of stone adzes or toki can be seen in the corner display unit. The narrow strip or keel of stone joining the statue to the bedrock was then chipped away to release the statue. This is rather like severing the umbilical of a new-born baby. The Rapanui may have thought the rock was literally giving birth to the statue, which was either alive or had the capacity or agency to be alive. Again this chimes with what Rapanui told early researchers when asked how the heavy stone statues were moved. They said that the moai walked to their destinations with the help of a shaman. A large artist’s impression from the National Geographic magazine shows teams of Rapanui ‘walking’ a statue by alternately tugging on ropes.
If any further demonstration of the Rapanui’s skill in working rock with hand-held tools were wanted there is a beautiful stone fish hook complete with part of its trace or line made from vegetable fibres.
The end wall of the gallery is devoted over to sections about the quarries at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau and a model of an ahu or ceremonial platform. The sections are beautifully illustrated by official expedition photographer Adam Stanford’s images of the sites. The Rapanui gathered different stones from all over the island and incorporated them in their ahu. This is hardly surprising given what has been said earlier about the significance of different kinds of rock – the volcanic tuff from Rano Raraku and the the red scoria from Puna Pau to name but two. A later section shows a selection of different stones from Rapa Nui kindly lent by the London Natural History Museum and the Oxford Natural History Museum.
The exhibition sketches the organisation of Rapanui society based on comparisons with other Polynesian islands. Some of the most wonderful exhibits are to be found at this point: a spectacular wooden staff with carved head and bone or coral and obsidian eyes, a pair of wooden dance paddles and wooden figurines.
The final section of the exhibition explores the reasons for the decline of Rapanui culture. It skirts contentious explanations such as the eco-disaster theory. According to this theory the Rapanui chopped down all their trees or introduced deliberately or inadvertently rats which gnawed the seeds of nuts of the palm trees and ate seedlings and thereby prevented the palm forest regenerating. Some researchers have pointed to the large numbers of stone enclosures or manavai on the island as evidence that the Rapanui adapted to their new circumstances. However, if the large numbers of obsidian implements or weapons called mata’a are anything to go by, this later period in the island’s history following contact with Europeans was characterised by increasingly bitter warfare. The statues were toppled and there were fewer and fewer standing each time visits were made to the island. It’s been suggested that this happened at least in part because of lack of maintenance but the fact that statues were toppled and their heads broken off in the process suggests this was done intentionally by other clans on the island. Toppling and destroying a community’s stone statues would rob it of power and authority. Not everyone would agree with this reading, nor the suggestion that the Birdman race, only touched upon here, is a late innovation but then the main focus of this temporary exhibition is ‘monu-mentality’ and incidental topics such as RongoRongo script and the Birdman cult, however fascinating, are only mentioned in passing.
The exhibition opened to the public on Wednesday 1st April and so far the response – at least to judge by comments in the Visitors’ Book – has been very encouraging:-
“Congratulations. Quite an impressive display of our culture for the joy and education of this city.” Mathias Francke DCM Embassy of Chile.
“Amazing exhibition, beautifully laid out and put together. Will be back again” Edwin S.
“Brilliant! We look forward to visiting in June”
“Fantastic loved the layout especially the statues” Tom C.
“Really enjoyed this exhibition. Glad we saw it on a vv cold day outside.” Jan O.
“Glad to see an intelligent reappraisal of the role of the statues within the island’s social community. I look forward to seeing the results of the archaeological fieldwork when they are published.”
“A wonderful exhibition very informative and well-presented. It’s a shame the exhibition wasn’t earlier in the year as it was one of the themes on the GCSE exam paper. Thanks Kate M.”
“Amazing to see the Rapa Nui statues up close. I brought my daughter so she could get some great photos for her A-level photography course… Thank you for allowing to take photos.” (02/04/15)
However, some German visitors complained about the lack of dinosaur keyrings in the Museum shop. Which all goes to show you can’t please all the people all the time…
“I liked it because I had never heard about Easter Island before. It was good to learn about the statues.” Katy aged 9 from Sale
“I went to Easter Island and this was a great little step back in time.” Michael and Helen April ’15
“I never knew they wore hats. How interesting.We really liked the moai statue at the entrance. Also the replicas in the gallery itself.” Aaron and Suzanne
“I thought it was good and I liked the statues.”
“Amazing. I learnt about Tutankhamun but not this. Loved it.”
“It is a fantastic display, very fascinating, my father Tom C. said it was one to come and see. He wasn’t wrong.” Rebecca (7/04/15)
“A most interesting exhibition on the Statues of Easter Island” Alan W. (08/04/15)
“Fascinating exhibits. Very informative member of staff. Learnt something new about the origins of our word taboo as well.”
“Loved seeing the display today. Many thanks”. Marie & Millie from Wakin.
Looking forward to reading and sharing more visitors’ comments as this exhibition progresses. As this last weekend was the Bank Holiday, I asked Dan for a flavour of what visitors were writing in the comments book and he replied: “They’re very positive, people have said great exhibition, very informative, and commented on how good the statues are. One person said it’s “sick” (meaning good, I think!), and one said that Easter Island is where the Easter Bunny lives!”
“I liked the exhibit and I liked the bit with Batman and Thor. I also learnt a lot!” Ruby H. (11/04/15)
“A great exhibition, very informative. Thrilled to bits I can say I have that I have seen an Easter Island statue” J.D. (11/04/15)
“This was thoroughly exciting! I always wanted to know more and see a real Moai. I would love to see this again! Thank you x” (11/04/15)
“After watching Dr Jago Cooper’s excellent program it inspired me to learn more, so lucky then to have this excellent exhibition in Manchester. Thanks.”
“Very detailed. Put together in a fascinating way” (12/04/15)
“I liked the exhibition a lot and I learnt some interesting stuff about Rapa Nui. The moai are really cool.” (12/04/15)
“Thank you for teaching me the proper name of Rapa Nui which I have arrogantly, eurocentrically, known as Easter Island. Beautifully pitched exhibition. Informative and fascinating.” Nicky (14/04/15)
“Amazing exhibition. I love the layout of the exhibition. It really highlighted the pieces and makes the Easter Island history exciting. Thank you for doing this exhibition. I really enjoyed it.” (14/04/15)
“I think that this exhibit is amazing! I am very confused as to how the islanders moved the statues. It is very strange.” By Josh L. (15/04/15)
“An extremely well-crafted exhibition really helps visitors understand and visualise what the statues would be like in situ.” (19/04/15)
“Lovely exhibition, wish it had been bigger. Loved the fabric entrance.” (19/04/15)
“Fascinating Easter Island exhibit” Ross D., Newcastle upon Tyne
“Last week I returned from Chile having spent 9 days exploring Rapa Nui – a unique and utterly amazing experience. I visited Orongo village, from where the moai currently on loan here from the British Museum was taken, and looked at the empty space. The islanders traded it willingly in 1868 and helped it to the Topaze but now it’s time to give it back!” Trevor [N.B. Moai Hava on display at Manchester Museum was taken from Rapa Nui by the HMS Topaze expedition in 1868 but it did not come from Orongo – that statue is Hoa Hakananai’a which is in the British Museum]
“Really nice exhibition. Thank you. I look forward to seeing more in the future. Keep up the good work.” Chile (30/04/15).
“We liked your exhibition. Olina loved the books but was scared by the eyes! And I loved the facts about tattoos.” Melanie and Olina (30/04/15)
‘Fantastic. Could not have been better and so worth the long journey over to get here.’ V.C. and V. Long. (17/06/15)
‘An absolutely fascinating exhibition. Thank you. Very informative and I shall take a much more interested approach to all things relating to Rapa Nui in future.’ (16/07/15)
‘I thought that they were very interesting and it was cool how they slide the statues down to a hole to lift it up. I thought that the entrance behind the curtain is pretty cool. The exhibition was awesome.’
‘Wonderful exhibition of some truly tremendous historical artefacts. Thank you for transporting us to Easter Island. Very well put together and the entrance behind the curtain is great!’
‘A truly inspirational exhibition with plenty of information to grab your interest. Irving was so helpful and he had Chloe aged five-and-a-half wanting more. Thank you all.’ Ben & C from Australia and Maureen from Eccles
‘A very informative exhibition and I have learnt about the people of Easter Island.’ (12/7/15)
‘Very well thought out space and thought-provoking. Clear and accessible information. Thank you!’
‘Very interesting. I learnt a lot more about the history and the statues themselves. Thank you…. Merrifield’
‘It brought the island to life. I had on idea about the volcanoes in each corner or the sheer number of statues. Very respectful exhibition, thanks.’ (13/7/15)
‘We visited Easter Island in Feb this year and read about the stolen moai so had to come and see it here. EASTER ISLAND is fantastic and well worth the journey. Ian W. and Viveien P.’ (17/7/15)
‘That’s cool I really love travel. If I have time I must go to Rapa Nui to have a look! Jacky from HK, traveller.’
‘Very, very interesting! Especially to learn how the clans treated the rock as a living being!’
‘Rapa Nui is Polynesian not Chilean’ – another visitors has annotated the last work with the comment ‘incorrect’
‘Thank you this was an inspiring exhibition’ (19/7/15)
‘Brings back memories from our visit to Easter Island in 2007 Thanks Laura and Stefan’
‘Very interesting exhibition. Liked the artefacts. Never knew about Easter Island until today. Kelly and Arnold’
‘Loved the exhibit. I’m an archaeology student but never really studied Rapa Nui before. This exhibition was informative and well-done. Emily B.’
‘Thank you for a wonderful exhibit – as well as the entire museum. Matilda Dallas, Texas, USA’ (20/7/15)
Moai Hava and entrance to exhibition about Rapa Nui/Easter Island at Manchester Museum.
The centrepiece of Manchester Museum’s temporary exhibition Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: The Statues of Easter Island, which opened on 1st April is the statue of Moai Hava. This 2m high 2.5 ton basalt statue has been kindly lent by the British Museum as part of its National Programmes. Until recently Moai Hava was displayed at World Museum Liverpool. These impressive statues enjoy an iconic status across the world. Drawing upon the recent fieldwork undertaken by experts from University College London, the University of Manchester, Bournemouth University and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), University of Highlands and Islands as well as Rapa Nui and Chilean archaeologists, Manchester Museum’s temporary exhibition explores how the statues were made, the significance of the different kinds of stone, and the quarries where they were carved, and the meaning that they had for the people of the island who are known as Rapanui. In addition the main exhibition gallery features two large replica statues or moai, each 2.5m high and surmounted by a topknot or pukao. These impressive copies were made by Chris Dean (who did the sculpting) and Peter Spinks of Freeform Studios Ltd and Creative Models respectively.
Statues or moai at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
About one thousand statues or moai are known from the island and most of them were carved in a quarry at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. The rock is known as volcanic tuff and is relatively soft when newly exposed. When it is weathered, and, under certain lighting conditions, it has a luminosity, which lends the statues an otherworldly character. This may explain why the Rapanui went to such lengths to make their statues out of this material. The statues were carved in the bedrock still attached by a keel.
About half still remain in the quarry in various stages of completion and are sometimes so jumbled together it would have been hard to remove them without damaging others. Some writers have suggested that they were not intended to be removed and erected, and that they are really large rock art or petroglyphs, in which the island excels. The massive statue known as El Gigante, which is still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, is 65 feet (20 metres) tall and is estimated to have weighed up to 270 tons. Paro, the largest statue erected, is almost over 30 feet (10 metres) tall and weighed 82 tons. We cannot be sure how the statues were moved but experimental work has shown they can moved on rollers, on a wooden frame resting on wooden rails, and even ‘walked’ by two teams pulling alternately on ropes, similar in some respects to how one would move a heavy fridge or freezer unit. A fine artist’s impression of the latter process, which appeared in National Geographic magazine (July 2012), provides the image at the entrance to the Museum’s temporary exhibition gallery, although we are not saying this is the only way the statues were moved.
The exhibition also shows a representation of one of the three hundred or so ceremonial platforms or ahu on which many, but by no means all, the statues stood. Each community on the island had its own ahu and frequently these are found on the coast. They follow a common design with a ramp of cobbles facing an open square or plaza with carefully shaped vertical stones on the seaward side, sometimes with crematoria for disposal of the dead. They seem to have been added to over time and some ahu contain pieces of broken stone statue and have ramps for launching canoes. The stones used to construct the ahu were quarried and gathered all over the island and sometimes petroglyphs were carved on them. The ahu were the ceremonial centres for the communities where special rituals took place. Early accounts describe the natives kneeling in front of the statues and raising and lowering their hands as if in prayer. The intervention of important ancestors was invoked through the statues. The eyes of the statues were inserted at particular times which ‘activated’ them but otherwise they may have been dormant (pers.comm. Prof Colin Richards).
Map of Rapa Nui or Easter Island showing locations of single and groups of statues
Not all statues were erected on ahu and some have been found along the roads or trackways that lead away from Rano Raraku. Previously these statues were interpreted as having been abandoned in transit when the supply of wood failed but work by the British team shows they were erected in these locations intentionally as a way of marking the approaches to the quarries, which must have been regarded as a deeply meaningful, symbolically and spiritually important space. It is interesting that the statues or moai occur at fairly regular intervals along the trackways. A similar arrangement can be seen in a sketch of Ahu Hanga Paukura published in Katherine Routledge’s book The Mystery of Easter Island (1919: fig.77). A number of toppled moai can be seen leading up to the ahu, another special place in the eyes of the Rapanui.
Moai seemingly abandoned in transit. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
Seeing, which we refer to in the exhibition in a section called ‘Polynesian Gaze’, was an important aspect of the Rapanui’s belief system, and recent fieldwork conducted by the British team has revealed two eyes carved into the surface of the quarry at Puna Pau where the cylindrical pukao or topknots were obtained. This small volcanic crater has effectively been hollowed out from within by the removal of over 1000 cubic metres of red scoria. Red was an important colour to Polynesians because it represented power, vitality and authority, making the Puna Pau scoria ideal for use as a headdress to decorate the head of a moai. Being cylindrical the pukao could be rolled to their destination but at least fourteen can still be seen close to the quarry.
Ahu Naua Nau showing moai wearing topknots or pukao. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
Whilst the project has been in development a number of colleagues have asked me whether Moai Hava is the only statue to leave Rapa Nui or Easter Island. Moai Hava is one of two moai that were taken from the island at the time of the HMS Topaze expedition of 1868. The other, perhaps the better known of the two moai, is Hoa Hakananai’a, and this is on display at the British Museum. It was recovered from the settlement of Orongo on the extreme south-western tip of the island. It was inside a house which no doubt explains the good state of preservation of its petroglyphs, which include dance paddles, birdmen and other motifs. A detailed discussion of this moai can be found in an article by Mike Pitts et al. in last year’s Antiquaries’ Journal (2014). The inscription on the base of Moai Hava states it came from this naval expedition and was presented by Queen Victoria to the British Museum in 1869.
Inscription on plinth of Moai Hava (photo: Stephen Welsh)
A number of colleagues have asked about the circumstances in which the statues were acquired. Jo Anne Van Tillburg’s book Remote Possibilities Hoa Hakananai’a and HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui (Trustees of the British Museum, 2006) gives an account of the removal of Moai Hava from the island and shows a drawing of the tattooed image of the event on the arm of one of the Rapanui (image 59). The book also lists others that are in other countries of the world: three in the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago, Chile; three moai heads in the Musee de L’homme in Paris; a moai, a head and a pukao or topknot in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA; a pukao, statue head and torso in the Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, bought back by the Franco-Belgian expedition of 1934-5; a moai in the Corporacion Museo Fonck, Vian del Mar, Chile; a moai in the Museo Arquueologico de la Serena, La Serena; a head in the Auckland Museum, Auckland, New Zealand; and a moai in the Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand. Details, photos and drawings of many of them can be found in Remote Possibilities. It is sobering to think that if you consider complete moai, there are only about half a dozen examples in different countries of the world, and our exhibition has one of them.
Moai in the Smithsonian (photo: Bryan Sitch)
Of course this is not the first time that statues and even whole monuments have been removed from lands around the world. The extraordinary scale and artistic quality of the Easter Island statues made them attractive to institutions which had the means to acquire them; their size and weight obviously made it difficult for private individuals to take away. The question inevitably will be asked whether such pieces ought not to be returned to the place from which they came. The same question has been asked of Egyptian artefacts and even more high profile artefacts. One could argue that there are sufficient moai and Egyptian antiquities for some of them to be spared for the enjoyment and education of people in different countries of the world, where these artefacts serve as ambassadors for their respective countries of origin. Boris Johnson in the Telegraph recently commenting on the destruction of antiquities in Nineveh by IS was grateful that many antiquities from Mesopotamia had been removed to Europe and America. Thank heavens that some of these wonderful pieces survive somewhere in the world and hopefully serve as a source of inspiration and help restore the pride and dignity of populations brutally robbed of their heritage in this way. You could say that institutions that hold such material would say that wouldn’t they, and that such objects ought to be returned to the country of origin. However, there is no reason to suppose the moai taken by HMS Topaze were removed from the island against the wishes of the islanders. The Swiss ethnographer Alfred Metraux (1902-1963) wrote that ‘Easter Island civilisation died between 1862 and 1870’, though I’m sure the present day Rapanui would dispute that.
In the case of Rapa Nui the statues had ceased to hold the importance for the islanders that they had had earlier. The reason for this is that the Rapanui belief system and way of life changed irrevocably after Europeans came to the island during the 18th century. The visits were greeted by islanders increasingly eager to exchange goods and favours for European and New World commodities such as close-woven textiles, metal objects and trinkets. A famous illustration by de Vancy from the time of the French visit in 1778 shows the Comte de La Pérouse measuring a standing moai whilst the Rapanui are stealing his hat. Another member of the ship’s crew is being distracted by an attractive Rapanui woman unaware that other Rapanui are picking his pockets. It must have seemed to the Rapanui that power and influence would come in future not from invoking the ancestors through the moai but by obtaining goods from passing ships.
Comte de la Perouse measuring a moai from Voyage autour du Monde (Copyright: University of Manchester)
Later visits by European ships’ crews revealed that fewer and fewer statues were standing. The last statue, Paro, was toppled in 1862-4. Although it has been argued that some statues were lowered carefully as grave covers, others were toppled deliberately in order to break off their heads. This seems to have happened at a time when the clans of the island were fighting amongst themselves. Warfare was common amongst Polynesians (pers.comm Prof.Colin Richards) but the toppling of the statues, the discovery of large numbers of sharp obsidian implements called mata’a and stories about fighting in Rapanui oral tradition all seem to point to the violent collapse of traditional Rapanui culture but not everyone would agree with this interpretation. The Birdman cult, the annual race to bring back the first Sooty Tern egg of the season from the tiny island of Motu Nui off the western tip of Rapa Nui, if its inception is indeed late, as may be hinted by some writers, may have been created as a way of avoiding the increasingly bitter outbreaks of fighting that followed first contact with Europeans. The Birdman had absolute power over the island for a year but did not have to compete personally in the race if he was represented by a champion.
During the 1860s about one thousand Rapanui, including the king, his son and priests, were removed forcibly to serve as indentured labour in South America. Many died on plantations, in the mines or in domestic service until an international outcry led to the repatriation of the survivors. Sadly the small number who finally returned to Rapa Nui brought with them diseases to which those who’d remained had little or no resistance. Large numbers of Rapanui died and others fled the island, which was increasingly given over to sheep grazing. After the island was acquired by Chile, in 1888, conditions very slowly began to improve for the Rapanui and the population recovered from an all-time low of just 111 people. Since that time the construction of an airport, the start of regular flights to and from the mainland and especially tourism have brought in much needed income for the inhabitants and helped to restore their sense of identity and dignity, though some would say it has been a mixed blessing. The island received World Heritage status in 1996.
Making Monuments exhibition at Manchester Museum. Photo: Joe Gardner.
The purpose of the Making Monuments exhibition, however, is not to tell the detailed history of the island but to explore the meaning these spectacular statues and their topkknots had for the Rapanui. We have not dealt with the unique RongoRongo script or the Birdman cult in Making Monuments exhibition except to refer to them in passing; they will be discussed in more detail in the exhibition booklet. Nor do we dwell on that other hotly debated topic of Easter Island studies the ecological disaster theory. Instead the exhibition focuses on the statues, how and where they were made, how they were moved around the island and the meaning that they had for the Rapanui.
Admiring the Moai in Making Monuments at Manchester Museum.Photo: Joe Gardner.
This blog post could not have been written without the help and support of a wide range of contributors to the exhibition project. The content of this article reflects the content of the Making Monuments exhibition at Manchester Museum, which was developed with Prof.Colin Richards of the University of Manchester’s Department of Archaeology. Some information comes from the AHRC funded fieldwork undertaken by the institutions referred to earlier. However, readers should not infer that Colin and his colleagues would necessarily agree with everything written here. The subject of Easter Island/Rapa Nui is contentious. The Headley Trust and The Dorset Foundation generously funded the temporary exhibition. Objects were lent by the British Museum, Horniman Museum and Gardens, Pitt Rivers Museum, Liverpool Museums, Natural History Museum (London), Natural History Museum (Oxford), Gallery Oldham and a number of private individuals, to all of whom we are very grateful.