Repository Spotlight: Kalaupapa National Historical Park- Hale Malāma Curation Facility

On November 3rd, I boarded a Cessna with a handful of other excited museum, library, archive, and cultural resource professionals from around the Pacific.  We were headed to Kalaupapa National Historical Park (NHP), to attend a three-day National Park Service (NPS) training:  “Preventative Care and Remedial Conservation Techniques for Archival Collections and Wooden Artifacts.”  UH Manoa students were among the participants, along with specialists from the Honolulu Museum of Art, ꞌIolani Palace, Kona Historical Society, and National Parks in American Samoa and Guam.  

As we departed Oꞌahu, I was reminiscing about my journey to the park with AHA back in 2011.  Museum Curator, Scott Williams, was our host and provided an orientation of the park, the new Cultural Resources facility, and some of the museum collections.

My attention was quickly drawn out the Cessna window as the Molokaꞌi North Sea cliffs came into view.  It was more breathtaking than I had remembered; although this was the first time viewing from that vantage point.  In my first visit, the adventurous archivists had flown topside and hiked down the 3.5 mile trail.  The trail scales 1,600 feet of vertical sea cliffs, with 26 switchbacks, and it was an amazing introduction to life on Kalaupapa.

As we now approached the runway for landing, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Kalaupapa from the air.  After all, when you can witness things from varying points of view, there is often an enhanced understanding and appreciation for the beauty that is….

 “Kalaupapa… is a place where past suffering has given way to personal pride about accomplishments in the face of adversity.  It is a place where each of us can reconsider our emotional and physical responses to people with disfiguring disabilities or illnesses.  It is a place where the land has the power to heal—because of its human history, natural history, and stunning physical beauty.”  –NPS GMP/EIS

Kalaupapa NHP’s Hansen’s disease (leprosy) population, both surviving and deceased, with its material culture, oral histories, and intact physical community, is one of the only of its kind in the U.S.  The settlement is still home to several surviving patients that reside in the community on a part-time or full-time basis.   Kalaupapa NHP honors the mo’olelo (stories) of the isolated Hansen’s community by preserving and interpreting its sites and values.

Newly restored sign.

Newly restored sign at the airport.

The park is also an extensive and valuable archaeological complex with a number of archaeological resources, a vast variety of site types, and an extensive time range of habitation and land use.  The role of the peninsula as a place of exile from 1866-1969 contributed to the preservation of the pre-contact archaeological complex.   According to NPS, Kalaupapa remains one of the richest and least disturbed archaeological landscapes in Hawaiꞌi.

As part of continuing efforts to preserve objects of social and cultural significance, KNHP arranged for two conservators from Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) to work on-site for one month with a major task of cleaning and stabilizing the altar at St. Philomena Church.  Carrie Mardorf, Chief of Cultural Resources, with sponsorship through Pacific Historic Parks, also arranged for the conservators to teach a three-day workshop to allow museum students and professionals from the Pacific Islands to learn about preventative care and conservation techniques for museum objects.

The training was held in the Cultural Resources building, which houses state of the art curatorial facilities to preserve and conserve objects, artifacts, and archive materials that tell the stories of Kalaupapa NHP and its residents.  The collection storage and research facility, called Hale Malāma, was not fully completed back when AHA visited in 2011; so it was a privilege to see the result of phase II.

Scott Williams reports that the museum collection, first managed in 1987, contains over 350,000 objects and archival documents, primarily representing the late twentieth century experiences of residents within the Kalaupapa Settlement.  A growing portion of the collection is comprised of archaeological assemblages and representative natural specimens as management continues to inventory its resources.   Roughly 300,000 items have been accessioned and cataloged into the Interior Collections Management System.  For several years there was no full-time museum staff to process the items.  Right now, Scott is the only museum employee; however, the Museum Technician position will be filled in February.

The mauka wing has a lab and curatorial storage facility, which holds rows of books, archives, archaeological collections, and personal objects, that all tell a story of Kalaupapa’s history.  The mauka lab is used for accessioning, cataloging, and conservation work; in addition, it contains two large chest freezers.  The wing also holds a large back-up generator that proved very useful during our stay; although, in darkness we learned that the generator is solely for climate control and not lighting.

 Note:  Clicking on any photo in this post will display more information.

The makai wing holds a storage facility for over-sized objects such as furniture, lighting fixtures, and antiquated medical equipment.  This wing also contains a lab for processing and conservation work and allows for new collections to be brought in without affecting other collections.  I was highly impressed with the large walk-in freezer, which we also noted had a safety feature so that you could not lock yourself inside.

We were fortunate to have two highly informative and engaging HFC specialists lead the training.  Theresa Voellinger is the Photograph and Paper Conservator for all of NPS; and Curtis Sullivan is the sole Wooden Artifacts Conservator.   They carefully balanced lectures with hands-on opportunities to work with the museum collections.

Participants working with some of the park's archival collections. Photo Credit: NPS/S. Williams.

Participants working with some of the park’s archival collections. Photo Credit: NPS/S. Williams.

Theresa covered the history of paper and photography; as it is important to know what an object is made of and how it is made to properly care for it.  We  learned some surface cleaning techniques for archival collections and were able to clean some of the Park’s collection.

Theresa also taught us countless great tips and tricks for handling and caring for a variety of objects, including distinguishing cellulosic film and polyester film.  After learning about long-term preservation strategies for film-based photographic materials, we tried out our new skills and prepared some of the park’s cellulose film for cold storage.  The micro-climates we created will allow the boxes to be placed in a frost-free freezer.

 Note:  Clicking on any photo in this post will display more information.

When caring for wood objects, Curtis explained the usefulness of understanding the nature of wood and the variation of wood grain from various sawing techniques.  As both a wood craftsmen and a conservator, Curtis seeks to understand how a piece was selected.  The boards a woodworker may have chosen for decorative or aesthetic purposes may be unstable and difficult to conserve.  Conservation of wooden materials at Kaluapapa has been challenging due to the environmental conditions and termite infestations.

 

 We also had the privilege of seeing the work that Theresa and Curtis had completed at the park.  We did a site visit to Kalawao and St. Philomena (Father Damien’s Church).  Father Damien, one of the most famous caregivers at Kalawao, is buried in the churchyard at St. Philomena. Damien was 49 years old when he died on April 15, 1889, with Mother Marianne at his bedside. His remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium. In 1995, a relic composed of the remains of his right hand was returned to his original grave at Kalawao. In 2009, Damien was canonized a Saint in the Catholic Church.

Just one of their many projects during their stay, Theresa and Curtis worked tirelessly as a team to stabilize and clean the surface of the church alter.  Loose pieces were secured, termite damage was repaired and surface grime was removed.

If you have questions about KNHP collection accessibility, a portion of the collection is accessible for research to the public on-site and electronically.  Many materials have been digitized for access (NPS Web Catalog) for users off-site or those who can’t travel to park; however, some content is sensitive and requires restricted distribution. Copyright and permissions issues also limit distribution of some materials.

On behalf of all of the participants, I extend a huge Mahalo out to the NPS staff for being our hosts, teachers, and friends: Carrie Mardorf, Scott Williams, Theresa Voellinger, and Curtis Sullivan.  We walked away with  more than I could ever articulate in a blog post.

I leave you with the beauty that is… Kalaupapa…. Respectfully, Jill Sommer

“Many who come to Kalaupapa recognize an intense, nearly tangible, mana or powerful force that Hawaiian peoples find in all things. The ʻāina (land), a vital source that links us to spirit is sacred and becomes our ʻaumakua (guide) that connects us to the continued presence of all who lived out their lives on this peninsula. The ʻāina’s mana (spiritual essence) connects us to each other and to spirit.”  –NPS GMP/EIS