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Moai or Easter Island Stone Figure
The Smithsonian’s two monumental Easter Island stone figures, or moai, represent some of the most popular and intriguing exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History. Since their arrival in 1887, one or both has always been on exhibit. Exceedingly rare, the statues—one a complete statue, the other a head—remain today the only such figures in a public museum in the United States.
These distinctive stone figures are a quintessential feature of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui. Most of them were made between the years 1100 and 1680, and are carved primarily out of volcanic tuff (solidified ash) from the extinct volcano, Rano Raraku. To date, a total of 887 are known to have been made, though many never made it out of the volcanic quarry. Each statue likely represented the deceased head of a lineage, and many were positioned on stone temple platforms facing inland to keep watch over their respective communities.
These icons of the Pacific have been well known to outsiders since the time of Captain Cook’s visit in 1774. The British collected a very significant statue, known as Hoa Hakananai’a, in 1868, the first statue to be removed from the island. A few years later, Britain’s great rival, the French, also came and carried away a stone figure. Both figures have always been prominently displayed, and are today at the British Museum in London and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.
The Smithsonian opened its first building dedicated entirely to the U.S. National Museum in 1881 (today the Arts and Industries building), and George Brown Goode, then head of the Museum, dedicated himself to placing the Museum on a par with the best in Europe. He set his sights on acquiring a moai.
To this end, the Smithsonian engaged U.S. Navy Paymaster William J. Thomson, who was headed to the Pacific on the U.S.S. Mohican. Officially on a mission “to protect American interests from German political interference” in Samoan waters, the ship spent twelve days in December 1886 on Rapa Nui. Thomson had instructions “to call at Easter Island, make certain investigations desired by the Smithsonian Institution, and especially to bring away one of the colossal stone images to be found upon the island.”
Paymaster Thomson and his group conducted a hasty survey of the island over the course of their short visit. Moving in a northerly direction around the western side of the island, they examined, measured, and plotted on a chart the location of the image platforms and their stone figures. Most of the figures had been toppled during warfare on the island, as various clans competed for dwindling resources after the island’s deforestation. Thomson and his crew recorded 113 platforms (ahu), or sites, documenting their names and taking measurements. Each night they camped in a different area, and they named one of the camping sites “Baird,” in honor of Spencer Fullerton Baird, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Camp Baird was near Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on the island. It was 150 feet long, with fifteen gigantic statues that had been thrown down on the inshore side of the platform. This platform has now been restored and the statues replaced. At Ahu O Pepe, another site farther inland, Thomson collected the Smithsonian stone statues: a head of Rano Raraku tuff and an intact statue that appears to be basalt; a recent petrographic analysis, however, has indicated that it is made of lapilli tuff, hardened after many years indoors. And to outdo the earlier British and French expeditions, Thomson also collected a red tuff pukao or headpiece for a statue.
In addition to the archeological survey work, Thomson and his team also made geographical charts, conducted excavations, and undertook ethnographic research, interviewing some of the elders on the island. The island at that point was inhabited by about 100 people, its population having been decimated in slave raids by Peru over the previous decades.
The team purchased a number of other artifacts, including several small wooden human figures and two rare rongorongo tablets—wooden boards with incised symbols, considered to be a mnemonic system, which remains undeciphered to this day. Thomson also acquired objects similar to those that had been collected by the earlier British expedition and also those from a German expedition for the museum in Berlin.
The monumental moai, together with the rest of the Easter Island collection, arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 1887, after nearly a year’s journey. It was carried across the Isthmus of Panama on the railroad, where, as the Washington Post explained, “it was quarantined for a short time, but the officers were soon convinced that it was not dangerous or contagious so they allowed the idol to regain its liberty and proceed on its travels.”
Soon thereafter the statues were installed in the U.S. National Museum building (today the Arts and Industries building). By the turn of the century, they could be found guarding the north entrance of the building, and later, with the construction of the new National Museum building (today the National Museum of Natural History), they were brought across the Mall. Only one is on exhibit today, in the north lobby entrance of the building, and is probably one of the most photographed objects in the Museum.
In 1950, at the request of the Rapa Nui people, the Smithsonian returned a set of painted stone slabs from the interior of one of the stone houses on the island that Thompson’s team had gathered. This repatriation was one of the first in the institution’s history.
Although the Smithsonian no longer removes objects like the iconic stone figures of Rapa Nui from their places of origin to Washington, its curators are still actively engaged in research at Easter Island, today a World Heritage Site.
Curator Adrienne Kaeppler visited the Ahu O Pepe site in 2001. There are still six stone figures and the probable torso from which the Smithsonian head had been broken at this site. When intact, eight stone images would have gazed over the homes and gardens of the Tupahotu Rikiriki lineage.
Kaeppler is a socio-cultural anthropologist and has carried out research in Rapa Nui on the visual and performing arts, as well as on museum collections that include Rapa Nui artifacts and photographs. She has written about the affinities of Rapa Nui arts with those elsewhere in Polynesia, especially in an extensive paper on Rapa Nui sculptures made from a basketry/plant base and covered with barkcloth and all of the wooden sculpture collected from first contact with Europeans until 1870 in museum collections throughout the world. Two of these early carved wooden figures are in the Smithsonian—one collected in 1840 during the United States Exploring Expedition and one collected about 1850 by Admiral Bleecker, a U.S. Navy Paymaster who served on USS Vandalia.
Another Museum staffer who has also spent a great deal of time studying the island is Dr. Douglas Owsley, Curator of Physical Anthropology. Owsley has studied the bones of some 450 individuals on the island, finding numerous examples of trauma—head injuries and other blows, indications of warfare and the stress from a collapsing society no longer able to sustain itself.
The Rapa Nui collection that Paymaster Thomson made during the voyage of the Mohican in 1886 has contributed greatly to our understanding of the archaeology, ethnology and material culture of Easter Island. This seminal collection joins another important Pacific collection at the National Museum of Natural History—the collections brought back by the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, which represent some of the foundational collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Together these two form some of the most important Pacific collections in the world.
Read “The Secrets of Easter Island” in Smithsonian Magazine (2002).
Learn more about the Easter Island Statue Project.
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