Video tour of the exhibit by curator RDK Herman
I don’t recall where I first heard that the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was doing an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but when I heard, I blogged about it, and decided to try to make sure I would get to DC to see it.
E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation is described by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (in an article hidden behind a paywall but fortunately available on CA Legislation Action Hub of all places) as “the culmination of more than five years of research and development.” In that same article, curator RDK Herman is quoted as saying that this is “the first time Hawaii’s story has been told publicly in Washington, D.C.,” and it was accordingly celebrated with a number of presentations, performances, and events, including a sizable symposium on “The Future of Hawaiian Sovereignty,” much of which is visible on YouTube. And, paired with the “Nation to Nation” exhibit on the history of formal treaties between Native American Nations and the US, makes the exhibit all the more timely and powerful, by connections in themes and historical parallels. So, you can imagine my excitement about this exhibit.
From what little I know of Hawaiian history – I am still very much a novice – I have come to believe strongly in the importance of Hawaiʻi’s story being taught, and learned, and known, by Americans across the country. There is so much to Hawaiʻi’s history which helps us to understand the devastating impacts of capitalistic ideologies that place corporate profits over popular well-being; the power of ideals of pure democracy to steamroll over the rights of specific (minority) peoples; and the beauty and powerful validity of different cultures, and alternate modernities. Hawaiʻi’s history is also an excellent case which helps us to complicate our understanding of American history, and to come closer to a more inclusively complex understanding of our country – there is much more to US history than Whites and Blacks, and Britain and Spain and Mexico, and slavery and civil rights, and Manifest Destiny and the frontier, and the numerous other issues and topics that we tend to make central and prominent in our discussions of mainland US history and issues. Hawaiian history is American history, too, now, as a result of the overthrow. The people who live there are Americans, too, and their stories, their problems, their experiences of racial/ethnic identity, are just as authentically, genuinely, part of the US American story as anyone else’s.1
The NMAI is an incredible place – its “Nation to Nation” exhibit, which I saw the same day, was top-notch – and I had no doubt they would do an excellent job of this. I could not wait to see an exhibit that brought the story of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in all its glory and its tragedy, to the nation’s capital, bringing to DC museumgoing audiences something approximating the experience of visiting the Bishop Museum – an immersive exhibition, loaded with artifacts, from the feather cloaks of the aliʻi to the letters, treaties, petitions, and/or other documents associated with the overthrow.
What a shame, then, that “lack of adequate funding … forced Herman to downsize the exhibit.” I appreciate that there are complicated politics involved here, as they are in any museum exhibit, that museum budgets are generally far tighter than the public imagines, and that having this exhibit come together at all is still a massive accomplishment. Not to mention the fact that this is the National Museum of the American Indian, and there is undoubtedly, and quite understandably, politics surrounding the inclusion of the Hawaiian people, especially where it might take away space and attention from the Ho-Chunk, Chumash, Snohomish, Seminoles, and other mainland Native Nations. I appreciate the difficulties, and I appreciate the accomplishment that this exhibit still nevertheless represents, and so I feel bad to criticize at all. Indeed, I trust that all involved did as much as they could, and so there is no person or institution to criticize – rather, it’s just the circumstances, the limitations of budget, security, space, and so forth; and thus, not a criticism, but simply a shame.
The historical narrative and its powerful lessons are still told in rather good detail, however, in this small exhibition. As you can see in Herman’s video tour (above), and in my own photos (there is unfortunately no exhibit catalog), the beautiful, well-crafted, well-curated, panels cover everything from Hawaiian literacy, symbols of sovereignty, and treaties, to the annexation, to cultural resurgence, sovereignty movements and prospects for the future. And, the panels included some really excellent information, such as treatment of the kingdom’s use of both Native and Western modes of symbolizing sovereignty, a chart of demographic changes over time, and a 2012 anti-annexation (Kū’ē) protest on the National Mall, which I had not known about.
I saw quite a number of people make their way through the exhibit while I was there, talking, pointing, questioning – so I do think this exhibit, however small, will make a significant impact. The inclusion of audio stations playing songs evocative of the various periods & historical moments, and of the video Act of War were excellent, and do a lot, too, towards imparting a fuller, more culturally immersive, impact upon visitors.
Yet, still, there were by my count only six artifacts in the gallery, four of which are from the 2010s, and one of which was a reproduction,2 despite the originals being held by the National Archives (NARA) – an institution under the very same broader umbrella organization as the NMAI, namely the federal government, and located only a five-minute walk away, literally. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the Smithsonian doesn’t own, somewhere in one of its various museums, other Hawaiian artifacts. Whatever the conservation concerns may be, and security concerns, it’s hard to imagine the NMAI could not have handled it. It’s not as if they don’t have conservation and security for the rest of their exhibits… But, then again, I don’t work there, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes true details of the situation. Herman’s video would seem to suggest that it was simply security concerns, and the Star-Advertiser budget concerns… So, it is a shame, but, sometimes it truly is the most mundane logistical circumstances which do us in, and sometimes that’s just how it is.
Based on the catalog, it sounds like the 1980 exhibit Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was everything this exhibit might have been. I do not know if there have been other such exhibits since, but regardless, I think it is time to see such an exhibit again – large-scale, filling a major gallery (such as the one “Nation to Nation” is in now, or one of similar size and prominence at the American History Museum across the Mall), and filled with numerous significant, precious, and impactful artifacts, conveying a fuller, more thorough narrative and more immersive experience of Hawaiʻi’s greatness, and its tragedy.
Someday. Hopefully, soon. In the meantime, though, my congratulations to Dr. Herman on the accomplishment – an excellent and historic exhibit, the successful culmination of many year’s work, bringing the story of Hawaiʻi’s history to Smithsonian visitors, and an exhibit which I do think will have a significant impact, teaching visitors important and shocking truths of which they had been unaware. My sympathies to him as well that it could not (yet, in this iteration) be all that he had hoped for. I eagerly look forward to seeing the project continue, and grow, and hopefully reach greater successes in future – and I look forward to hopefully being in some position someday where I can contribute somehow to helping to make that happen.
1. With acknowledgement, of course, for the fact that many Native Hawaiians (and people of many other indigenous Nations) do not recognize US authority over them, and do not consider themselves Americans. Still, I think this makes it all the more incumbent upon us to know about their history, their struggles.
2. A pre-overthrow human hair necklace (lei niho palaoa) was the only pre-2010s artifact on display.