Almost a year after it was first mooted and after six months’ hard work Making Monuments on Rapa Nui the Statues from Easter Island opened 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)