24 August 2015

Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: The Statues from Easter Island

Manchester Museum, 1 April - 6 September 2015

Any exhibition about Rapa Nui is inevitably going to be popular and challenging. How to satisfy a public who feel they ‘know’ the island’s most famous inhabitants – the iconic ‘Easter Island heads’ - when the statues themselves are inevitably out of reach on one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world?
This exhibition succeeds on two fronts. Significantly, the curators have been able to borrow the British Museum’s lesser-known, but still impressive statue Moai Hava (meaning ‘dirty statue’). This figure was brought to the UK by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868, at the same as the British Museum’s famous moai: Hoa Hakananai’a. Raised up on a plinth in the entrance to the museum, Moai Hava ensures that visitors do not overlook the exhibition. Secondly, the exhibition includes two replica moai that impress, both in terms of their scale, and in the sense of drama created by the way one encounters them.

The British Museum's Moai Hava in the entrance hall at Manchester Museum

The first part of the exhibition is contained in a small room which houses four display cases and a screen projecting large scale images of Rapa Nui and the statues in situ. While the images of the statues are striking, more remarkable are the beautiful views of the island’s landscapes: lush, green, rolling scenery and white beaches probably unfamiliar to those whose only experience of Easter Island is via representations of the moai in films such as Night at the Museum. This room introduces visitors to the Island’s geography, histories of encounter and the on-going fascination with the statues that has led to a myriad of cultural representations.

Initially it seemed that this may be all there was for the visitor to see. A large curtain covered with images of Rapanui Rongo Rongo script tantalisingly suggested that there may be more to discover, but it required the encouragement of a museum attendant for most visitors to venture beyond. Stepping through the curtain brought one face to face with the replica moai. This moment of revelation, along with the decision to adorn the moai with red topknots and, in one case, to include the figure’s eyes ensured a ‘wow factor’ and the appreciation of visitors was audibly clear!

Replica Moai on display in the exhibition
Here, the exhibition discussed the latest interpretations of quarrying techniques, manufacturing processes and the way that Rapanui may have moved or ‘walked’ the moai. These texts were informatively and accessibly written and were the result of recent archaeological fieldwork carried out by members of the curatorial team. I was particularly impressed with the attention given to aspects of Rapanui cosmology, including many indigenous terms and concepts both in the gallery text and in the reasonably priced accompanying catalogue. One example was a discussion of the Polynesian realms of Ao and Po (light and dark or everyday and spiritual worlds). Indeed, the decision to separate the opening section of the exhibition from the darker space behind the curtain can be read as a clever visual manifestation of these concepts, and this intention was confirmed by a well-informed gallery attendant.

My only disappointment was that some of the ethnographic pieces included in the exhibition were not displayed as well as they might have been. One case including a staff and two beautiful dance paddles seemed cluttered and poorly lit, making it hard to appreciate the objects. On the other hand, a display of stone adze blades, lit through a glass shelf to create a series of shadows on the case floor below, created a very pleasing effect. It’s a shame that this attention to detail was not applied consistently.

In summary, Making Monuments is an excellent exhibition that succeeds in appealing to a range of audiences and no doubt has attracted visitor numbers to please the curators as well as the powers that be at Manchester Museum.
Julie Adams
Senior Research Fellow

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