by Gavin Mičulka, HMA Member, Kona Historical Society Assistant Program Director.
Over a three-day weekend in April, I joined a group of thirty other museum professionals at the historic CCC Camp in Kaua`i’s Kōke`e State Park for the Hawai`i Museums Association 2016 Conference, “Place (S)Pacific.” At 4,000 feet above sea level in the Island’s mountainous mesic forests, Kōke`e is a short distance from Kaua`i’s famed Waimea Canyon and the Nā Pali Coast. Rustic accommodations, cold nights, and a lack of Wi-Fi and cell phone service were a stark contrast from my daily routine. But the incredible setting and intimate surroundings provided the perfect place to discuss the shared interests of Hawai`i’s museum and collections community.
The restored CCC Camp at Kōke`e. Photos by HMA and Gavin Mičulka.
Since 1968, the Hawai`i Museums Association has served the state’s museums, historic sites, gardens, and heritage organizations, which today number nearly 100. Conference attendees, many of whom are also active AHA members, came from several islands and represented organizations such as the Bishop Museum, Hawaii State Art Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture & the Arts, `Iolani Palace, Kīlauea Lighthouse, Kōke`e Museum, Kona Historical Society, Lahaina Restoration Foundation, Lyon Arboretum, Mānoa Heritage Center, Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Culture, and more. Each member brought insights reflective of the museum profession in general, but also unique to the specific interests of Hawai`i. These organizations embody a strong sense of place and share authentic stories that celebrate Hawai`i’s diverse cultural and natural heritage.
HMA’s 2016 conference allowed us to discuss the methods and techniques used in the museum field to share these place-specific stories. A keynote address by Dr. Keao NeSmith, author, Hawaiian translator, and University of Hawaii at Mānoa Instructor introduced the place that is Kaua`i. NeSmith’s ongoing efforts seek to use various media to reintroduce the Island’s traditional place names. By educating visitors and locals alike, such efforts foster stewardship for the environment and the stories so closely tied to place.
Other local presenters spoke about their roles at Kaua`i’s cultural and historic sites. Aletha Kaohi, Manager of the West Kaua`i Visitor Center, spoke about Hawaiian perspectives of the Russian Fort Elizabeth. These perspectives, richly tied to personal stories and family traditions, illustrate how certain sites can manifest multiple senses of place. While a single perspective might be presented via road signs, maps, and brochures, efforts like those of Aletha help bring in the perspectives of Native Hawaiians. Frank O. Hay and Jim Ballantine shared the efforts of Kaua`i non-profit organizations to preserve and repurpose a couple of the Island’s historical sites. Frank’s organization, Hui o Laka, has helped preserve the historic CCC Camp for more than 60 years. Through the CCC Camp, Hui o Laka preserves and shares the stories of the young men that contributed to area’s forest management and conservation in the 1930s and 1940s. While maintaining its historical integrity, Hui o Laka use the renovated CCC Camp to host volunteer groups, researchers, and educational groups.
Jim’s Hale Puna organization recently acquired the Gulick Rowell Mission House and has initiated efforts to restore the home to its early 1900s condition. Today, the home’s grounds are maintained as a community garden and it is hoped that a restored home will serve as a community center. Aletha, Frank, and Jim showed how important a “sense of place” is to local people. They also reminded us of the desire to share this sense of place with the world and create more meaningful experiences for Hawai`i’s visitors. The conference’s theme of retaining a “sense of place,” provides not only a connection to Hawai`i’s culture, which is so tied to the land, but also contributes to the preservation of place and community identity as we, as collections professionals, find new and engaging ways to share our collections and sites.
Jenny Leung, the Collection Manager at Mānoa Heritage Center took away much from these presentations, “The HMA conference is an opportunity to listen, share and collaborate with our peers who work in diverse kinds of museums/cultural organizations, many of whom we often regard as being in “other departments” beyond collections management – educators, registrars, exhibit designers, directors, etc. The Kauai conference encouraged our staff who attended to work more integratively on projects within our organization, as well as reach out to other very different HMA members for solutions.”
Other presenters allowed us to take a broader look at the needs of Hawai`i’s museums, their staff, and their visitors. Museums reflect the people they serve and more often visitors seek hands-on experiences. Bishop Museum’s Michael Wilson shared how interactive exhibits and games nurture a deeper level of learning and create more meaningful and memorable experiences for visitors. Michael’s presentation was itself interactive and encouraged conference attendees to create their own games, using simple instructions, to convey information. Technology will continue to play an evolving role in our field. The staff of the Kōke`e Museum showed us how GPS technology can play an important role in how we explore our sites and even maintain our collections. Discussions illustrated how GPS technology, combined with software like PastPerfect, can be used to geotag collections that are often spread across a wide area. Volunteers can regularly be the heart and soul of museums and their programs. Seasoned museum veterans Victoria Wichman of Kaua`i State Parks and Jill Laughlin of Lyon Arboretum shared their experiences in attracting and maintain volunteers, thus increasing museum productivity and advocacy.
Roundtable discussions allowed HMA members to discuss the challenges faced as museum professionals. Topics included conservation and collections care, professional development, marketing and promotion, volunteer training and management, and fundraising. “From a collections stand point, the HMA conference roundtable was an invaluable opportunity to talk story with colleagues who work in varying capacities with collections within a diverse range of museums and organizations in Hawai’i,” said Mina Elison, Curator at Kona Historical Society. “From collections of large-scale public art to biological specimens, not only could we honestly discuss our challenges of handling and curating these objects, participants were able to share some ‘victories’ and new strategies for success.” Roundtable discussions reminded attendees of the networks available to support Hawai`i’s museum professionals.
Like AHA, the Hawai`i Museums Association is a community of deeply passionate professionals committed to the idea that stories do not necessarily have endings. We are meant to preserve and share those stories in a manner that is respectful, meaningful, and creative. Our shared work ensures that the stories of Hawai`i’s kupuna will be here for generations to come. Professional organizations such as AHA and HMA remind us that, although an ocean may separate us from some of the larger professional organizations on the mainland, we are not alone. We can rely upon active networks of Hawai`i professionals deeply committed to a set of shared interests and values. Our work may be challenging and ever-changing, but thanks to AHA and HMA we are able to build upon the ideas of those that came before us.