Huge moai stones from Easter Island go on show at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum

By Ben Miller | 14 March 2011
A photo of stone carvings of faces on a hilltop
A different view of maoi in Middlesbrough
Exhibition: Easter Island, Myths and Popular Culture, The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Marton, Middlesbrough, until September 4 2011

Captain Cook’s Polynesian Easter Island is perhaps best known for moai, the large stone statues carved from the ash of extinct volcanoes between 300 and 900 years ago.

More than 800 of the rugged beauties, showing figures kneeling while cradling their stomachs in a process which would take several islanders up to a year to complete, have been counted on the island and in museum collections to date. Now eight of the monoliths have made it to Middlesbrough.

“Before this exhibition there were only two moai in the whole of the UK, at the British Museum and in Marton,” says Dr Ian Conrich, a Fellow at the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and the curator of the show.

“Easter Island’s stone statues have long held a popular appeal which has extended far into the culture of foreign countries. We are trying to understand how it has captured the imaginations of different cultures around the world.

“To do that we are bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds including cultural studies, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and international relations.

“This material has never been brought together in this way before, and it is a huge coup to be able to put it on display here at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum.”

Measuring up to 10ft in height, the stone heads join an existing Tutira stone, which has stood outside the museum since being fashioned in 2008.

Hundreds of pictures, objects and interactive creations accompany the statues, worked on by co-curators from Nottingham Trent University, the University of London and their peers from New Zealand’s University of Otago, the University of New South Wales and researchers from Easter Island, where the show will be staged in May 2012.

“I have shown material like this to islanders before,” recalls Conrich. “They are stunned by the way the statues are represented in the culture of other countries.”

Phil Philo, the Senior Museums Curator at the Birthplace Museum, says the centre’s “major role” in the ambitious exhibition is part of a mission to keep Captain Cook’s incredible sense of discovery alive.

“Captain Cook visited Easter Island in 1774 and returned with some of the earliest and most important accounts of Easter Island and its people,” he observes.

“We are interpreting Captain Cook in new and unusual ways to show his relevance and importance today. This exhibition features more modern items inspired by the culture of Easter.

“I am sure that Cook would have recognised and been amused by them.”

  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5.30pm. Admission free.
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