The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Containing the divine
a sculpture of the Pacific god A’a

17 March – 30 May 2016

Exhibition closed

Free

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus 

Supported by

Standing casket figure of the god A’a. Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia, 16th–17th century.

Encounter a sculpture of the god A’a, learn about its influence on artists and poets, and find out about the latest scientific discoveries that are transforming our understanding of this enigmatic object.

This display will explore the relationship between divine power and people in Polynesia through the figure known as A’a – probably the most famous Polynesian sculpture in the world. In 1821, islanders from Rurutu – one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia – sailed to Ra’iatea in the Society Islands to give A’a to the London Missionary Society (LMS) as a symbol of their conversion to Christianity. After A’a arrived in London in 1823 it was exhibited alongside other Polynesian objects at the LMS Museum. It entered the British Museum in 1890, before formally becoming part of the collection in 1911.

More about the exhibition

Since then, A’a has been a source of fascination and inspiration to artists, poets and others across the world. Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso both had their own casts made of the figure, poet William Empson wrote a poem about A’a and the Museum, and it continues to inspire people today. The show will also look at how Rurutuans view and interpret A’a today. The figure has not been forgotten, and a cast sits on display in the mayor’s office.

In preparation for the British Museum display, A’a has undergone scientific tests to try and understand why and how it was made. These tests have confirmed the theory that A’a was created to contain the divine – the figure would originally have been used to hold the skull and bones of an important ancestor. The research findings have also challenged ideas of when A’a was made, and what the sculpture is made from, and you can find out more in the display.

A’a was an important and sacred figure in Rurutu, and was one of the most highly prized pieces collected by the LMS. Today it is one of the most famous, intriguing and unique objects in the British Museum.


Explore A'a in 3D

Discover A’a from all angles and learn more about the sculpture by clicking on the annotation marks.

 

New scientific findings revealed

New research tells us more about how, when and why A’a was made.

Find out more 

 

Create your own replica of A’a

Download the activity sheet below and share your finished model on Twitter using #Pacificgod and @britishmuseum

Download activity sheet 

 

Related book

Discover more about the story of this enigmatic figure with this new title accompanying the show.


Voices from Rurutu

People from Rurutu today reveal how important the figure is and what A’a means to them.

 

 

 

Viriamu Teuruarii
Guardian of the Tararoa marae

I grew up with my grandfather next to the marae (sacred enclosure) where A’a would have been kept. The story of A’a has shaped my life. I identify with him to the point that I felt it right to have his image tattooed on my body, over my heart.


 

Gisèle Tavita
President of the Rurutu Tourism Committee

Rurutu’s Council of Elders have had different theories about A’a explained to them, some contradictory. They refuse your findings about sandalwood and stand by the oral traditions transmitted from generation to generation.



 

Elin Teuruarii
Entomologist, Guest House manager on Rurutu and A’a enthusiast

Although I am originally from Britain, I do feel that A’a has had a fairly profound impact on my life, if only as Viriamu’s partner. Viriamu will tell you it’s all the will of his ancestors that a Brit ended up here. I’m not sure I’m as attached to the idea of destiny as my husband, but I am inspired by A’a. His mysterious past and status as cultural icon, with the ability to impact different cultures and times is impressive, and I guess that is the beauty of visual art.


 

Olivier Lenoir
Cultural Guide and Dancer

My grandparents told me about the existence of this tiki and the story of how Rurutu was converted to Christianity. All the objects belonging to the ancient religion were burnt in a great bonfire, except A’a. His name signifies to touch or caress, as he was a figure that people would visit to ask for help and guidance. In the hollow back of the tiki were kept the bones of chiefs. To my grandparents A’a is a symbol of an unenlightened past.



 

Moearii Darius
Dancer and Chief of Marketing, tourism sector

I am from Tahiti and very few people there know of the story of A’a, even though we see his image around on television programmes and at the airport where there is a statue of him. Nevertheless, A’a is an important object and an important legacy of our past.


 

Silifu Parau
Retired Teacher and family historian

I feel a strong connection to this figure. For me, A’a is a representation of a deified ancestor. He is a God figure and would have been carried at the head of a voyaging canoe to guide people on their voyages. I believe the bones of one of my ancestors would have been housed inside A’a.



The story of A’a

 

The story of A’a on Google Cultural Institute

 

 

Find out more