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Moai, sacred ancestor figures of Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui moai cast in the Pacific Galleries of the American Museum of Natural History, NYC, made during the 1934–45 AMNH expedition to Rapa Nui A conversation between Dr. Jenny Newell (Research Associate, AMNH, and Curator, Climate Change at the Australian Museum) and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano jingle) - [Narrator] We're in the American Museum of Natural History and we're looking at a Moai from an island in the Pacific called Rapa Nui. And it's very popular because it appeared in a recent movie. And so lots of folks come in the museum and wanna take their picture with it. - [Narrator Two] People already love coming to see this Moai. It's a cast, it's not an actual Moai from Rapa Nui, and it's brought a lot of people into the Pacific Hall. And we're hoping that people will not just take their selfies with the Moai, but they'll also stop and read a bit more about the Moai and understand a bit more about the culture that he comes from, and also stop and look around the Pacific Hall and learn a bit more about the amazing cultures that are there. - [Narrator] You normally think about museums having original works of art, but this one is a cast. - [Narrator Two] Yes, I'm so glad it's a cast and not an actual Moai, because they really do belong in Rapa Nui. They were sacred figures. They're ancestor figures, and they're very heavy. They're made out of massive stone carved on the island and they were worshiped through different ceremonies. And what's happened over time is that they become very iconic and people from beyond the Pacific recognize them and the museum wanted to have something really substantial and impressive and recognizable in their new Pacific Hall when they were putting it together. It was first open in the 1971. When they had an expedition there, they didn't bring back an actual Moai, they were bringing back more documentation about the ways of life there, the different types of people there, they were doing anthropological and other collecting, but they had an artist with them, Toshio Asaeda, and he created a plaster cast of one of the Moai that was on the inner slope of the volcanic crater, Rano Raraku. And what they decided to do was take this plaster cast and bring it back to the museum. - [Narrator] Let's go back a minute and talk about Rapa Nui, because so many people in the west know it as Easter Island, which is a name given to it by-- - [Narrator Two] The Dutch explorers who landed there in 1722 on Easter day. - [Narrator] So there are close to 900 of these figures. They were part of a sacred precinct where they helped to form a bridge as ancestors between the earthly realm and the supernatural realm. And they stood on these platforms called ahu. - [Narrator Two] The ahu were platforms that raised these Moai up high, above the people who were communing with them. - [Narrator] And they're already quite tall. - [Narrator Two] On average, about 14 feet high. So extremely impressive, very large eyes and very imposing bodies and heads, and their backs were to the sea. They're facing inwards towards the middle of the island. And they were carved inland where the rock quarries were. Their fronts were carved and they were still attached to the rock. And then the rest of them would be chipped away from behind and then raised. - [Narrator] We believe that many of them did originally have inlaid eyes, which would've made them look very different. - [Narrator Two] They had eyes made of coral and they were inset. - [Narrator] Their faces are very imposing and they seem to stick their very squarish chin slightly forward. Their shoulders are a bit narrow, so that we really focus on that head and the nostrils, the nose is very pronounced. The brow is very pronounced, but it must be very different to see these on the island arranged in a row with their backs to the sea. - [Narrator Two] I think also you have the elongated ears, which was another part of the ritual power. I think that many of the early ancestors would've had and you could also see the wonderful curved nostrils, which are on all the figures on Rapa Nui. The one here doesn't have those wonderful nostrils, unfortunately. We're not quite sure why, but we think we have an artist's impression here. We don't have an actual cast of the Moai's face. - [Narrator] This was a very standard type, but they're identified with specific ancestors. For example, the one in the British museum. - [Narrator Two] The one at the British museum, Hoa Hakanani'a, was found in the ritual center in the middle of Rapa Nui and was brought by an archeological expedition back to England. And at the time when they unearthed it, the expedition team saw that he was painted. And the most amazing thing was that he had Bird man religion images carved into his back. So it's this incredible transition from one religion to another was represented in this one object. - [Narrator] So by around 1400, we begin to see the decline of the religion that inspired these ancestor figures and the rise of a new religion called the Bird man religion. So the people of Rapa Nui today, the indigenous people, are interested in repatriating some of the figures that made it to museums like in Washington, DC or in London. - [Narrator Two] There's been course continuity throughout the history Rapa Nui, and though the population did drop terribly because of European diseases that were brought in because of the slave raids, when people were taken off the island forcibly and taken to working the mines in Chile, the population has grown again, but it's been a hard period for a lot of the cultural traditions to survive in the kinds of ways that the Rapa Nui would like. There's been a lot of ways of remembering those kinds of traditions and bringing them to the fore again. So even though there's been a lot of the usual sorts of difficulties that people have in a colonized and missionized environment. - [Narrator] It is unfortunate that the character in the movie The Night at the Museum is called Dumb Dumb. - [Narrator Two] It does unfortunately continue these ideas about the Pacific being a primitive place, which is of course not at all true. And this ancestor figure is a figure of great manner, great personal and ancestral power with great wisdom and dignity. And it would've been great if the character could have been a character like that. (gentle piano jingle)