I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Island of discovery
How might an island-people, with no access to our modern technology and transport, have quarried and moved statues, weighing up to 82 tons? This is one of the questions at the heart of a fascinating exhibition currently on display at Manchester Museum.
When Dutch explorers visited Rapa Nui (on Easter Day 1722, hence the European name), they were greeted by the sight of giant-head statues. This discovery has gone on to inspire artists, including Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), and archeologists ever since.
At the entrance to the exhibition we are greeted by the imposing figure of Moai Hava, a statue of an ancestor carved from basalt and collected by HMS Topaze in 1868.
Inside we learn how the culture of the Rapanui people influenced the creation of the statues. The Rapanui believed that all of their island, including rock, was animate and that through commemorating their ancestors, they could also channel their influence and power (mana).
The exhibits range from carved stone heads, ash and volcanic rock to the covers of graphic novels, albums and cartoons, including The Mighty Thor, and Pink Floyd's The Division Bell , which prove how the statues have taken on a wholly new cultural life.
The question as to how the giant heads and busts were transported is not conclusively answered, although there is a very convincing depiction of how it might have been done - this is a subject which needs to be communicated visually and not just in words.
Another intriguing question is why the statues were allowed to fall or were even pulled down. Was it clan warfare? The decline in the belief of ancestor-power? A shift in focus to the European ships and their cargo of textiles, irons and trinkets? Or simply a combination of all these factors?
Many of the items on display are on loan from the British Museum in London but there is still strong Manchester input. Professor Colin Richards, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester, drew on his recent fieldwork on the island, to help give the exhibition shape. His work brings a fresh perspective on the significance and quarrying of the distinctive top-knots (pukao) which look like decorative hats and were used to represent very important ancestors. At the centre of the floor-space there are also replicas of the statues, created by the museum's in-house specialists
Making Monuments on Rapa Nui is another reminder from Manchester Museum of how we can learn from other cultures and how human ingenuity so often leaves us with conundrums that are still waiting to be solved.
Rapa Nui at Manchester Museum. Photo by Joe Gardner.
The origins of The Manchester Museum lie in the collection of the Manchester manufacturer and collector John Leigh Philips (1761-1814). After his death, a small group of wealthy men banded together to buy his 'cabinet', and in 1821 they set up the Manchester Natural History Society. The museum expanded in 1977 into the former Dental School. It is a university museum and its collections, including dinosaurs, mummies and live animals, are designated by the government as being of national and international importance.
Refreshment can be found at Café Muse, with breakfast, lunch and afternoon menus.