Around the World in 80 Models: Polynesia

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Hop on board as we continue our journey Around the World in 80 Models! We began our itinerary at Sketchfab headquarters in New York and are working our way through Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America, and North America. To catch up on past destinations, check out the rest of the Around the World in 80 Models series.

This week we are on the island of Rapa Nui via the British Museum, where Thomas Flynn tells us about a model he made of a very famous moai.

Rapa Nui, Polynesia: Hoa Hakananai’a

Note from the author: This article was written way back in early 2016, before I joined the Sketchfab team. Plenty has happened in the world of 3D scanning for me, at the British Museum and beyond but this is a nice reminder of where it all began for me…

Hey! I’m Thomas Flynn and I live in London, UK. I began making photo-scans in my mornings before office hours while working as a designer for the British Museum. I was using Autodesk’s 123D Catch (sadly now discontinued) and at the same time found out about Sketchfab – the two things seemed like a great combination and I began pushing to include some 3D scans in the museum’s website. These early 3D scans formed the beginnings of the British Museum’s official Sketchfab offering and we are now adding more models every month.

It started as a hobby and now I’m making 3D models for the British Museum as part of my job there. I recently started providing training for digital and curatorial staff in how to make photo scans.

When I was first starting to scan objects I was supported and encouraged by fellow web-teamers Alex Peters and James Curwen.  Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin helped organise access and permissions to scan objects (like this pacific island statue for example) and Dan Pett, who has worked at the Museum for several years, has been instrumental in educating and inspiring museum staff about the potential of 3D. This collective of 3D enthusiasts (and many more people besides) have been working to get more scans up on the Museum’s Sketchfab profile as well as into galleries as digital installations and 3D printed handling objects.

I also re-use some of the scans I make for a project of my own, Museum in a Box (co-founded with George Oates) which seeks to project museums and their expertise out to people who can’t make it to a physical venue in person. It uses 3D printed objects as ‘keys’ to unlock audio recording about what you’re holding in your hand. You can hear the recording made by George Weyman’s in response to Hoa Hakananaia’s history at around the 00.27 mark in this video:

I use a pretty modest setup to create 3D scans – a Canon G7x compact camera, a small light tent and, on the software side of things, I mostly use Agisoft PhotoScan or RealityCapture in combination with Blender 3D. I often shoot objects handheld if I am moving around them or use a tripod with the light tent & turntable for smaller subjects.

I recently started a forum thread for people to share their workflows, gear and experiments which is hopefully useful for people new to photogrammetry.

This scan of Hoa Hakanani’a was one of my first ‘early morning’ scans – the real statue is situated  prominently in the Museum, you really can’t miss it and it seemed like a good place to begin my experiments. As a member of staff I was able to access the galleries early in the morning before they were open to the public which meant I had a lot of time to take photos without interruption.

Even so, the gallery is not that well lit (in a photography sense) and you’re not allowed to use tripods in general at the Museum so I had to make do with some blurry shots, some taken kneeling down, others with my arms stretched as high as they could go.

The model is actually missing a small part from the top of its head as I did not have a step ladder or pole to work with and therefore the software was unable to reconstruct this area. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to go back another time and take more photos.

This object is Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’) is originally from Orongo, on Rapa Nui, a small Polynesian island far off the coast of Chile, also known as Easter Island.

Here’s a link to the view Hoa Hakananai’a once had on the island. The figure now stands in the British Museum’s “Living and Dying” gallery:

Photo by the author.

I’m not an archaeologist or historian so I’ll lead here with a quote from the official museum record on the British Musuem’s site:

“Ancestor figure ‘moai’, called Hoa Hakananai’a (hidden or stolen friend) made of basalt […] This statue would have originally stood on a specially-built platform on the sacred site of Orongo. It would have stood with giant stone companions, their backs to the sea, keeping watch over the island […] It is understood that large stone sculptures or moai were made on Rapa Nui between AD 1100 and 1600.”

So, historically speaking, this statue is a symbol of worship, ancestry and the creativity of the Rapa Nui people – an artistic creation depicting a small nation’s understanding of their place in world.

Interestingly the statue is also a symbol of the effect of early globalisation on indigenous peoples. The effect of the visit by HMS Topaz (that lead to Hoa Hakananai’a arriving in Great Britain) from the curator’s’ notes:

“This sculpture bears witness to the loss of confidence in the efficacy of the ancestors after the deforestation and ecological collapse, and most recently a theory concerning the introduction of rats, which may have ultimately led to famine and conflict.”

Hoa Hakananai’a on the deck of the HMS Topaz, © Attribué à Paul Émile Miot

It seems like I am not alone in making scans of Moai either, several other Sketchfab users have made scans of Hoa Hakananai’a and some have even had the pleasure of visiting Rapa Nui itself to make scans of other moai in their original context:

The size and recognizably enigmatic design of the Easter Island Moai, along with the mystery of just how these massive figures were made and moved without modern machinery, have lead to their being embraced by popular culture.

References to the Moai can be found in numerous books, comics, TV, film and advertising including Super Mario, Mars Attacks, Pokémon, The Simpsons, an advert for a Pontiac Sunfire and more (scroll through the page on any of these links!).

It seems like the relatively little knowledge we have about the origins and meanings of the Moai have lead artists and writers and game makers to project their own theories and stories onto these statues, ensuring their place in modern life.

Finally, here is a great video from National Geographic showing how some people think the Moai were transported from where they were carved all across Rapa Nui:

About the author

Abby & Néstor

Abby and Néstor are Sketchfab Masters.
Abby Crawford, Ph.D. is trained in and passionate about Roman Archaeology and works as a freelance artifact illustrator and 3D scanner in California.
Néstor F. Marqués is a virtual Heritage & cultural diffusion researcher, and an enthusiast of ancient Rome’s culture.


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