In recent years, museums across the nation have wrestled with decolonizing their institutions. Three Hawai‘i institutions and a new grassroots tour are making efforts to represent familiar narratives and artifacts in reclaimed contexts.
Museums offer a place where people can reach beyond the boundaries of their own experiences to find something new in something old. Moving through a space with cultural artworks and objects can help bring them to life. But if museums aren’t careful, they can also perpetuate harm upon the cultures whose resources they present.
The San Diego Museum of Man is a glaring example. It displayed ancestral remains and cultural resources from the Kumeyaay Nation for more than a century, refusing to repatriate the remains despite decades of requests from the tribe. This shifted in 2014, when the museum began an active process of decolonization by increasing representation of Kumeyaay peoples’ work, acknowledging the museum’s role in colonization, returning remains and objects to the tribe, and uplifting Kumeyaay perspectives through inclusion in decision-making.
The decolonization process does not have a clear-cut path—each instance of colonization is unique to its historical and cultural context. In Hawai‘i, this includes the overthrow of a sovereign kingdom and the ongoing colonization of its people by the United States. Museums working to address their roles in colonization in the islands are making efforts to ensure the perspectives of the cultures they represent are uplifted, seen, and heard. This includes diversifying narratives, increasing accessibility, and honoring non-Western worldviews.
Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives
At Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, which consists of three former houses of Protestant families and a printing press used to generate Hawaiian-language Bibles, the public can access an archive of 12,000 printed volumes and thousands of pages of missionary journals and letters—pages dominated by Western thoughts and values. Lisa Chow, the museum’s assistant development director, recalls one excerpt from a journal that describes the “multitudes of cases of laziness and love of sin” among Native Hawaiians. “But at the same time, my grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother all saw something valuable in this place,” Chow says.
Chow’s ancestors, who were Native Hawaiian, taught students and were baptized into the Protestant faith at what is now Hawaiian Mission Houses. To her, this familial connection to the houses feels like a sign to develop tours in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) for the museum, one way to reckon with the juxtaposition between the stories that it has uplifted and those it has left out. She is also working to incorporate mo‘olelo (stories) into the tours to highlight the experiences of Native Hawaiians from the 1820s to 1920s, when the houses were active. Until these tours are piloted, the nonprofit is conducting workshops to discuss the proper stewardship of history and curating special exhibitions that represent Native Hawaiians and items from their culture.
Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design
The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design is working to honor Doris Duke’s vision for the home by increasing the depth of its focus on the Muslim cultures represented by art in its collection. To move in this direction, it brought on Asad Ali Jafri as its curator of programs. Jafri, who has worked for decades putting together arts festivals and concerts across the globe with the direct involvement of Muslim communities, believes that using the museum’s platform to highlight Muslim voices is one way to shift uneven power dynamics Muslims have faced.
“One of the biggest things we’re doing is we changed the residency model,” Jafri says. “Residencies are more frequent, and they’re more engaged in community in general than they have been in the past.” They also now include events throughout the Hawaiian Islands. For the residencies, Jafri looks for people across disciplines to offer them a space that encourages public discourse. This helps shift the power from the museum to the communities it represents and supports dismantling negative biases and harmful stereotypes.
In early June, hip-hop duo The Reminders participated in the revamped program. They performed for free at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum and had an intimate concert on the lawn of Shangri La. They also guided a “de-tour,” for which resident artists are given agency to share their interpretations of items in Shangri La’s collection.
“The intention behind why the museum was established is different than most of the Western museums in the world,” says Marques Hanalei Marzan, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s cultural advisor. “It was the intention of Pauahi to preserve her family’s collection and treasures in perpetuity for her people.” A princess who lived through a time in the 1800s of colonization of the Hawaiian Islands, Bishop sought to preserve what she could in order to maintain her culture. Perpetuating the museum’s research and collection since 1889, when it was founded by Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his late wife, has been an ongoing act of resisting colonization.
One way Bishop Museum has suffused the visitor experience with Native Hawaiian ideology is through the reorganization of its Hawaiian Hall, which formerly displayed resources in a Westernized, chronological order. The reoriented approach engulfs museum-goers in a physical iteration of a Hawaiian worldview. Visitors standing on the first floor are surrounded by Kai Ākea, the ocean realm from which all people, spirits, and gods emerged, signifying pre-contact Hawai‘i. The second floor represents Wao Kanaka, where the daily activities of humans unfold, highlighting the interconnections between the land and people. Wao Lani, the upper realm on the third floor, is reserved for the gods and chiefs of Hawai‘i and their connections to Hawaiian history.
Native Hawaiians have a rich tradition of storytelling. Their mo‘olelo are often associated with specific places and carry mana. But many who visit Hawai‘i, and even those who live here, experience the islands at such a fast pace—fueled by the colonial sense that places exist to extract experiences—that it can be difficult to honor this tradition.
A new nonprofit, Native Stories, is working to decolonize people’s connection to Hawai‘i by making mo‘olelo more accessible. Launched in February 2019, the audio content platform and production house documents and shares stories from people and places throughout Hawai‘i. Nohea Hirahara, the nonprofit’s president and founder, and her team search out historians and others who have learned the old stories of Hawai‘i and make what they have learned available as podcasts and self-guided tours. The self-guided tour of ‘Iolani Palace provides nearly 20 minutes of information about 17 points of interest throughout the palace grounds.
“We are decolonizing by telling the stories that happened before and during the process of the overthrow, and ancient stories,” Hirahara says. “The whole point is you get to connect to that place, and you get to understand it more because it has context.”