Friends Reunited – ritual ‘Atua’ figures meet up in Australia

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William Crawley’s recent TV series, on the contribution of people from Northern Ireland to life in New Zealand, reminded me of ethnographic material held in the Ulster Museum and in particular to the islands off the east coast of New Zealand, in Polynesia.

The loan of rare and precious objects to other museums is often on the condition that they are ‘couriered’ by a member of staff from the lending institution, who will oversee their installation in the exhibition space. Just before anyone complains about cost to the NI taxpayer, these trips are always covered by the borrowing museum! 

So began a trip to Australia with our Polynesian god, or ‘Atua’, a small organic figurine who was about to be reunited with one of only two other Atua, of this type, that survives. The Ulster Museum acquired its Atua from Thomas Augustus Thomson, an Ulsterman who travelled in the Pacific in the wake of Captain Cook, between 1836-40.  It was made in Easter Island from a wickerwork frame covered in a cloth fashioned from the bark of a mulberry tree (tapa cloth), which was then painted in a fashion probably representing tattoos. 

Although small in stature (in this case 47.5 cm in height) Atua were regarded as powerful gods and were carried on trips across the Pacific and into battle, as well as occupying sacred enclosures. The zeal of Christian missionaries who regarded them as heathen idols encouraged their deliberate destruction on conversion of the population, which helps explain their rarity.

The Ulster Museum’s Atua is likely to be a female, though the evidence is hidden inside the maro (loin cloth) that wraps around her body. She was reunited with her male counterpart, also from Easter Island and now in the Peabody Museum in America. Without doubt both figures were created by the same artist.

Atua Sacred gods from Polynesia was a major exhibition borrowing material from around the world and displayed at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. And I’m pleased to report that both the courier and the precious cargo made it back to Belfast safely. 

The Ulster Museum acquired its Atua from Thomas Augustus Thomson, an Ulsterman who travelled in the Pacific in the wake of Captain Cook, between 1836-40.