Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: Majestic statues at Manchester Museum

Andrew Anderson

A 3.3 tonne moai statue has come to Manchester Museum for an exhibition that looks into the secrets of Rapa Nui island.

Which are the world’s most recognised icons – perhaps the pyramids? Maybe the Taj Mahal? If you were being cynical, you could say the dollar sign. But any list worth its salt would have to include the moai statues. More widely known as Easter Island heads, as named by European explorers, these monumental stone figures were carved by an ancient Polynesian society living on the tiny island of Rapa Nui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Now, Manchester Museum has one of the heads on display as part of a new exhibition, Making Monuments on Rapa Nui, which runs until 6 September.

“They are very similar to other Polynesian statues,” says Curator of Archaeology at the museum, Bryan Sitch. “Only they are more developed in every way.” Indeed the statue on show here, Moai Hava (which means “dirty statue”), is a very impressive piece of work, weighing 3.3 tonnes and standing 1.56 metres tall. It has all the inscrutable power you associate with moai; like an ancient Mona Lisa.

The statue on show here, Moai Hava (which means “dirty statue”) weighs 3.3 tonnes and stands 1.56 metres tall

The islanders lined the heads up along the coast, and they are thought to represent ancient ancestors. However, the statues face inland, which might seem odd. “The island was all they knew, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to face out to sea,” Sitch explains. “For them there was nothing beyond the horizon.”

No one is quite sure how the island’s inhabitants moved such massive pieces of rock, but the fact is they did: of the 887 they carved between 1100 and 1680, around a quarter made it to the coast. And, as well as making their incredible heads, the Rapanui also created wonderfully intricate wooden tools and figures; the museum has many exceptional examples on display.

But the best thing about the exhibition is the insight it gives into the mindset of the Rapa Nui’s inhabitants. They saw the both the island and the stones they cut from it as living things, and had profound ideas about transitioning from the living realm to mystical world beyond. Unfortunately, the arrival of Western Europeans shattered the islander’s beliefs, causing an existential crisis from which they never truly recovered. They stopped making statues, and eventually their culture was almost entirely obliterated.

Making Monuments on Rapa Nui is an eye-opening exhibition, showcasing the magnificent art and mythology that humans are capable both of creating, and destroying. I challenge you not to want to find out more about these incredible people, and the enigmatic heads they left behind.

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