As I discussed briefly in my post on Japan’s offer to return artifacts to Korea a few weeks ago, the Bishop Museum here in Honolulu is currently holding a small but extremely important exhibit. Small, because it consists of only three objects, but inspiring strong feeling and a massive sense of importance among the Hawaiian people because those three objects are the last large-scale icons of the Hawaiian god Kū remaining in the world today, returned to these islands for the first time since they left, over 150 years ago.
An article from The Honolulu Weekly this week is but one of many published recently about the exhibit. The online version includes a nice video talking about the exhibit and the issues surrounding it:
Ironically, Noelle Kahanu, projects manager for the museum, says of the statues whose return is so celebrated, and whose departure from these islands next month might be quite contested, “If they hadn’t left, they wouldn’t have survived.” Hawaii became a Christian kingdom in the 1820s, and like good Christians, the Hawaiians started destroying idols and other symbols of their own heathen religion. The one Kū image which is in the Bishop’s permanent collection today somehow survived, but has been castrated, a particularly powerful and ironic situation for a god who is so closely associated with male power and with erectness. The two on loan right now from the British Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, by contrast, have their male members intact.
Today, on the 200th anniversary of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I, Hawaiians celebrate the return of two statues that survived destruction at the hands of their ancestors.
The real issue at hand, that I find most interesting, is the question of what will happen to these sculptures when the exhibit closes next month.
The two museums which own these two sculptures were at first hesitant to loan them to the Bishop, fearing that they might not be returned. Despite the best intentions of the Bishop Museum to play by the rules, to be an upstanding member of the global museum community, and to uphold their promises (and legal contracts), the loaning museums were afraid that protests or other pushes by native people in Hawaii could lead to calls for reconciliation and repatriation, and to the sculptures being retained in Hawaii. And, while I cited their peaceful return as a model example for how museums and native peoples can interact harmoniously, without accusations of theft or imperialism or whatever, it is starting to look like I might have spoken too soon.
In a controversial, potentially dangerous, and wonderfully gutsy move, the Bishop Museum will be hosting an official forum event, open to the public, for free, this coming Monday night (27 September, 6-8pm), where such issues of repatriation and the like will be discussed. So, I suppose we shall just have to see how this all plays out.
Personally, I think it’s great that the museum is doing this. They’re engaging with the community, they’re showing that they’re not a haole institution, but that they are welcoming and inviting of interaction with the native community and respectful of the natives’ opinions and views… And just in general, outside of the particular case of dealing with native peoples and repatriation issues, the idea that a museum should open its policies and decisions up to public debate, rather than allowing protesters outside the gates to create the image that the museum is elitist, cold, and closed, shutting out popular voices, is a wonderfully gutsy and “post-museum” sort of move. I don’t know what the Hawaiian word for “chutzpah” is, but Noelle Kahanu for one definitely has it.
Whatever happens, this could be an interesting and powerful moment in museum history, setting precedents for how repatriation issues might be handled in future, whether other museums will ever be willing to loan objects to Hawaii again, etc. I’ll be keeping my eye on it, and am quite curious to see how it turns out, either way. Though, if anyone’s organizing a counter-protest, against keeping the sculptures, let me know, and I’ll join you. As a huge fan of the Peabody Essex and British Museums, I would love to see them get their objects back, so that people in England, and New England, can learn about Hawaiian history and culture, and be inspired by these powerful artifacts. And so that the Bishop, and the Hawaiian people, might be able to gain or maintain standing in the global museum community, respected and viewed as people who keep their promises, who respect other peoples and institutions, and who identify themselves as members of – not opponents of – the global community.