Denby Fawcett: New exhibition at Iolani Palace will detail the fall of the Kingdom of Hawaii

We have museums in Hawaii that focus on art and culture, volcanoes and natural history, but as yet there is no museum that details the formation of the Hawaiian kingdom, its fall, and the modern day political movement to restore the once independent nation of islands describes.

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Friends of Iolani Palace, the non-profit organization that manages the palace, has raised more than $3 million to create such a permanent exhibition in the palace’s basement.

“A critical but bittersweet history of our Hawaii,” Paula Akana said Saturday at a palace dinner to raise another half-million dollars to complete the new galleries.

Akana is the General Manager of Friends of Iolani Palace.

The galleries, due to be completed in 2024, will be the first major new exhibition the palace has undertaken in decades.

Recent work on the building has been the repair and maintenance of the 19th-century structure.

“Visitors will be thrilled to get a glimpse of Hawaii’s history from the Kamehameha Dynasty through the constitutional monarchy to the sovereignty movement,” says Akana.

She says visitors to the palace are mesmerized by its splendor as they walk through the European-style rooms of its last occupants, King David Kalakaua and his sister, the last sovereign Queen Liliuokalani.

“But after seeing the first and second floors, which are about that one time, they often want to know more about the earlier days of the kingdom and what led to its fall and what happened after Hawaii was no longer an independent nation.” , she says.

Recent work on the building has been the repair and maintenance of the 19th-century structure. The palace has not had a major new exhibition in decades. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The palace used a federal grant to hire a team of scholars — historians and political scientists — to write the text for the exhibitions, which are intended to be authoritative rather than inflammatory.

“It’s an opportunity to present a Hawaiian-centric narrative of what happened,” says Noenoe Silva, one of the content experts hired to write the lyrics.

Silva is a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, who teaches courses in Hawaiian and Indigenous politics and the Hawaiian language. She is the author of Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism.

She and the other content experts have been working together for months to come to an agreement on precise wording for the text on the panels that will not be offensive to visitors.

“You will tell hard truths. A truth is a truth. That’s the value of fact-based history. The goal is to provide a clear understanding of what happened,” says palace curator Leona Hamano.

Eight new galleries will be created in rooms in the castle cellar that were previously used as storage.

Currently, the basement houses six galleries with exhibitions that sometimes seem frozen in time, such as Queen Liliuokalani’s jewelry collection, Kalakaua’s assortment of medals and ribbons, cases of swords and koa gourds, and other royal items. The rooms convey no sense of the energy that once permeated the palace as the last monarchs increasingly struggled to retain their kingdom.

Silva is working on the text for the new gallery entitled Hawaii’s Story, which traces the steps that led to the 1893 revolution, the revolution itself and how its aftermath continues to affect people today.

This butterfly brooch, on display in one of the current galleries in the Palace’s basement, was purchased by Queen Liliuokalani in London to wear on Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Telling the expanded story of the kingdom’s fall and its aftermath may make some visitors uncomfortable when viewing the hard-hitting information in the new galleries, especially if they are unfamiliar with Hawaiian history, including the fact that the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown became American businessmen and planters, and there are active movements to restore sovereignty today.

Another new gallery, called the Hawaiian Diplomacy Gallery, will highlight the work of royal leaders to preserve and strengthen their nation and bring official American and international recognition to Hawaii as an independent country.

The gallery will highlight the extensive diplomatic ties Hawaii had between 1866 and 1900 with more than 100 consulates and ligations in countries around the world including Russia, Japan, China, Germany and Tahiti as well as France and England where the kingdom stood diplomatic missions in several cities.

This gallery will also highlight Kalakaua’s Hawaii Youth Abroad program, in which 17 young people, including one girl, were sent as far away as China, England and Italy to study and bring back their knowledge with the hope of eventually becoming a Cabinet members would serve in the kingdom.

Part of the room will feature a map of Kalakaua’s voyage around the world in 1881 to encourage the formation of treaties to strengthen support and international friendships for the islands.

“Like many monarchs of this era that we know left their nests, sought out what was out there in the much wider world, and absorbed what was valuable to bring back. Kalakaua was adventurous; he was not afraid, much like the early Polynesian seafarers who came before him,” says Hamano, the curator.

To entertain young people, there will be a gallery called the Family Interactive Room, where children can dress up in monarchy-themed clothes.

A gallery called Contemporary Movements showcases the political endeavors that are in full swing today, such as campaigns to protect Hawaii’s land rights and environment, language revitalization, and movements to restore Hawaiian sovereignty.

“We hope to help people understand that the palace is not just a place of ancient history where things happened a long time ago. Today, as Hawaiians, we feel connected to it as a living entity where we can come together to feel how the themes that were so compelling in the past continue to be a part of the present,” says scholar Silva.