European and American explorers arrived on the shores of this Pacific Island as transitory visitors passing through, spending a few days at most walking its contours and meeting a few of the Rapanui people for whom it was home. Yet they brought an intellectual baggage with them that has left its mark for generations to come on Rapa Nui and globally. Through the lens of scientific curiosity and a sense of cultural superiority, these uninvited visitors thought they were doing good for the world by taking these things and saving them from destruction. Arriving on the Island they perceived a community that was doomed and its culture disappearing. The motivations of many who collected were less about individual greed and more about preserving ‘extinct cultures’ for study and the benefit of humanity. Ironically, it was their very arrival and actions which catalysed this decline over the last decades of the nineteenth century. Their footsteps, and those that followed, did not touch lightly and yet the resilience of Rapanui people has shone through even the darkest of hours.
After the first few foreign visits to Rapa Nui opened up new vistas for the islanders about a huge unknown world of strange people… and many dead Rapanui… trade was carried out offshore. Very few of the foreign visitors actually landed. It was the islanders that swam out to ships and boats with presents, with food and with items of trade. The few sailors that were allowed to land were kept close to the coast and followed strictly delimited paths. This was likely a deliberate strategy of the Rapanui to keep foreigners behind a veil, to maintain the tapu, letting crews of ships only see and choose what the locals wanted. Small wooden objects were normally chosen. Easily collectible, showing remarkable craftsmanship and being key to the art of a forlorn culture, by the mid nineteenth-century collectors and museums all over the Northern Hemisphere had plenty. The woodcarving and marketing of these had become quite an art, with skilful artists and sellers likely becoming celebrities in the declining society of post-contact Rapa Nui. Carvers knew these items would be on display far away, making their art reach those lands afar and curious eyes of strangers.
However, there was interest for more. The colonial forces in play in late nineteenth century empires competed not only for military and strategic reach, but also for a cultural one. Curios and objects made specifically for trade were no longer as desirable for the larger collections. There was a scarcity of true ceremonial objects and, especially those massive stone “idols”. After foreigners settled on Rapa Nui in the 1860s, it became easier. The British took two moai in 1868, one being an incredible unique one. Chileans, imitating the great powers, took two small ones in 1870. Then the French took a massive moai head in 1872. The pattern would continue for 80 more years with the United States, Belgium and New Zealand getting their own. The fact that the Rapanui society was in a shambles and under pressure from outside religious and political forces made it possible. In parallel with this the rongorongo boards, containing the only ancient script of the Pacific region, were also taken away.
The ethics of this process have been hotly debated. Utilitarian and deontological perspectives crash here. Is it World Heritage or Rapanui heritage? Are these works better preserved away from their place of origin, away from their original purpose? Are these just objects that should be preserved and ‘looked at’ or should they have again a cultural, spiritual purpose? We do not aim to provide an answer to these complicated questions. We do believe that important curatorial work should be done to determine the origin of museum items. Were they obtained as a result of exchange? Were they looted? Were they obtained under specific circumstances that made the collection possible? Are they common tools of which countless interchangeable ones exist or are they unique items? The issue of ethics in the collections won’t go away until that encounter occurs on a regular basis. Besides, instances of dialogue should be opened to understand each other’s perspectives.
That won’t be easy as the ancient Rapanui had completely different ideas about things. The societies of the great western empires collected things for preservation based on their authenticity, historical value and uniqueness. That’s why they tried to obtain items, either directly or from others who had collected them. In exchanges with foreign crews, the Rapanui wanted to obtain practical things: from food to metal tools, from cloth to items of clothing. It was an asymmetrical exchange. Everything they obtained was given use, whether the use the item was supposed to have in the first place or some other novel one. Nothing was really preserved for future generations. Nothing was kept pristine to witness the craftsmanship of Europeans. The Rapanui did not care about that. From a western perspective it would probably be interesting to see a ‘Rapanui Museum of Foreign Objects’ and the perspectives of the local curators. But, of course, culture changes. It’s not frozen in time, so the current perspectives are not necessarily the perspectives of the people a century and a half ago.
That said, the Rapanui people, that in spite of everything still exist and still speak their language, want to have a say and want to be a part of their ancestors’ oeuvre. Today a proud community of Rapanui people descended from their inspirational ancestors are passionate about reconnecting with their cultural heritage and the historical context within which it was taken from the Island. The starting point for this should be museums opening up their storerooms and welcoming indigenous knowledge into collective discussions and interpretations as a basic human right and integral aspect of the curatorial process. Rapanui people trade things all the time and this isn’t about wanting everything to be returned. What we need is sound curatorial study and research into the ethics of trade behind each object, and the differential power relations that lay behind each collecting event. Discussion can then flow about the shifting value and ethics of acquisition and loss for all in a contemporary context…..
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