The early Rapanui (Easter Island is now known as Rapa Nui, and its people as Rapanui), reached the island in about 1000 CE. In addition to the famous enormous stone statues, they created a host of other objects, including little-known but fabulous wood carvings, all of them testifying to absolutely remarkable creativity, artistry and technical skills.
For Montrealers and tourists alike, this exhibition will be the perfect opportunity to learn right here in Montréal about the history and culture of the Rapanui, who even today remain the most isolated people on the planet. The nearest inhabited land is 2,100 to 3,600 km away. Getting to Rapanui is truly an epic voyage!
“It is a real privilege and an honour for Pointe-à-Callière to present this world-class exhibition on Easter Island,” says Francine Lelièvre, Pointe-à-Callière’s Executive Director. “We want to offer our visitors an exceptional opportunity to learn about this little-known people, by presenting these rare artifacts. Despite their sometimes tragic history, the island’s inhabitants created a unique culture and their own art. We will be presenting a selection of superb pieces from the world’s leading museums.”
The artifacts have been lent by some twenty institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, the British Museum, in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, the Musée du quai Branly, in Paris, the Musée national de la Marine, in Paris, the Museo Missionario Etnologico, in Vatican City, the Museum für Völkerkunde, in Vienna, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, in Brussels.
A discovery-filled voyage
Easter Island, a tiny speck of land in the Pacific Ocean some 3,600 km west of Chile, measures just 165 km2: three times smaller than Montréal Island! Yet it is a tremendously important part of world heritage. When Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen “discovered” it on Easter Sunday, 1722, he was struck by “this strange island with its enigmatic statues.” But it took several more centuries before archaeologists and ethnologists shed light on the extremely rich and unique Rapanui culture. This very accessible exhibition explains different facts and questions that continue to intrigue scientists.
Visitors will be invited on a journey through space and time on different themes, in an eloquent museographic setting that is bound to impress them with its evocation of the island and the pictures that will whisk them off to Rapa Nui.
First, the destination
Visitors will be invited to begin by locating Rapa Nui on a map of Oceania – they are sure to marvel at how Polynesians, guided by their impressive astronomical and seafaring knowledge, managed to travel across thousands of kilometres of open ocean to find this speck of land in about 1000 CE. Then, as visitors come “in sight” of the island, they will consult a map indicating the sites they will be exploring: volcanoes, the main ceremonial platforms (called ahu), a sacred village and an islet where an important annual competition was held to choose the “Birdman.”
In the days of the first kings and the ancestor cult. With the help of abundantly illustrated information panels and the artifacts on display, visitors will start by exploring the island as it was in the earliest days of Rapanui culture. They will learn about daily life and how the Polynesian settlers brought animals, food plants and extensive horticultural know-how to this arid volcanic island (inscribed pebbles from dwellings, tools, fishing gear, bags made from banana leaves and gourds); how the island and Rapanui society were organized (carved wooden insignia of power, tools for making precious barkcloth, or tapa, ornaments, tattoo implements and feather headdresses); the making and transportation of the some 890 giant statues that can still be seen on Rapa Nui and that may have represented ancestors; beliefs in spirits (carved human- and animal-shaped figures, some of them the most valuable in the world), and more. In this part of the exhibition, visitors will also be able to admire some extremely rare and fragile figures, made of painted tapa on a reed framework.
A major transformation of the landscape. Visitors will then learn about a brief period that led to profound changes in the lives of the Rapanui. Sometime between 1650 and 1722, the forests that had once covered the island disappeared in the space of just a few decades. Various hypotheses are presented in the exhibition to explain this event. The most likely one suggests that it was because of climate change created by an especially strong El Niño effect that warmed the waters in the South Pacific and may have produced an extended drought. The Rapanui once again showed their great adaptability and adopted new horticultural and construction practices. Until then, they had worshipped their ancestors and seen their king as the earthly representative of divine power. At this time they seem to have largely turned to worshipping the god Makemake, creator of the other gods and of humans, and protector of migratory birds. They attributed the power to maintain the island’s fertility to a new figure, the “Birdman.”
The Makemake cult and choosing his representative, the Birdman. Next come a host of surprising objects from the time of the Birdmen: “petroglyphs” (inscribed or bas-relief carved stones) representing Makemake or the Birdman; Birdman wood carvings; a sooty tern egg, the means by which Makemake designated the human who would represent him for the coming year; and ornaments and headgear worn for celebrations. There are also a number of rare objects inscribed with rongorongo signs – the Rapanui were the only Polynesians to develop a form of writing.
Gradually returning to the present day
The last part of the exhibition will gradually bring visitors back to the present day, while at the same time presenting the collision of the Western and Rapanui worlds in the island’s recent history. Visitors will learn about the time of the great explorers in the 18th century (with Jakob Roggeveen from Holland, Don Felipe Gonzales y Haedo from Spain, James Cook from England, and La Pérouse and others from France), the time of the great disasters in the 19th century (when close to half of the Rapanui population was carried off to Peru as slaves and terrible diseases were introduced by foreigners), the 1872 visit by the young Pierre Loti, from which he took away sketches and souvenirs, the time of reconstruction in the 20th century (when major research missions were carried out) and, finally, the present day, with the new challenges posed by tourism (some 40,000 visitors every year) and the erosion threatening this open-air archaeological park, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
There is reason for hope. The Rapanui, graceful hosts, are aware of the unique value of their heritage and the need to preserve it. Their archaeologists, working in co-operation with researchers from Oceania, Europe and North America, are continuing to advance our knowledge of the history of this people and how they survived some terrible calamities.
As well, visitors will be able to visit, in photographs, the Rano Raraku volcano “quarries” where the enormous statues were carved, to get a close-up look on screen of some finely carved objects, and to see rare and extensive footage from a film shot in 1934-1935 during a Franco-Belgian research mission. They are also sure to be impressed by an immense virtual moai, an original projection designed specially for the exhibition. First of all, though, they will be greeted at the Museum entrance by a life-size moai head brought from Île Notre-Dame. The copy of the head of an actual statue from Easter Island stands 9 feet high and weighs over 10,000 lbs.
Easter Island – An Epic Voyage, the publication
The 160-page exhibition catalogue, also produced by Pointe-à-Callière, will be an essential introduction to Rapanui culture. It will present all the objects displayed in Montréal and some 100 photographs of Rapa Nui, along with four articles written by leading Easter Island experts: Michel Orliac, archaeologist; Nicolas Cauwe, curator of the Prehistoric and Oceania collections at the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, in Brussels; Georgia Lee, PhD in Archaeology at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), a rock art expert; and Jo Anne Van Tilburg, PhD, Director of the Easter Island Statue Project and Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. It will be available in both English and French versions at the Museum gift shop.
The Easter Island – An Epic Voyage exhibition, presented from June 8 to November 14, 2010, is being produced and mounted by Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of History and Archaeology. The Museum wishes to thank its partners, Scotiabank, Tourisme Montréal, the Consulate General of Chile in Montréal, Air Canada Cargo, Hôtel Intercontinental, Astral Media, Historia, Archambault, La Presse, and The Gazette.
Supported by the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program.
The Museum is subsidized by the city of Montréal.