Today’s Honolulu visit was focused on art and history. The Honolulu Museum of Art (HMA) is interesting even on the outside. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of a huge steel structure whose parts move with the wind, with organic huts made from shrubs grown in front of the museum. One can go into the huts, and peer out through windows that have been woven into the shape – it literally draws you in.
This museum covers many geographies and periods. Our docent started with sculptures in the garden, then led us through Indian, Southeast Asian, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese collections as well as one covering Pan-Asian Buddhism.
I’ve been fortunate to see museums with excellent Asian art on three trips to China and four visits to Korea. It was comforting to see and identify so many themes from these visits. My daughter recognized that the celadon bowl in our living room was related to the ceramics she saw in the Korean exhibit. I’m so happy that we can both make these associations. This may sound silly, but I feel it validates how I’ve spent my life, the choices I’ve made that allowed for travel (old crummy cars but great travel). I also made a discovery that I hadn’t realized before – I prefer sculpture to paintings. Why did it take me this long to figure that out?
The docent finished the tour by showing us where to find the European Art rooms around the Mediterranean Courtyard. I wandered, enjoying how the rooms with the collections are clustered around courtyards that speak to the art surrounding them. Archways lead the eye to other courtyards. I was expecting hot weather in Honolulu, but we were blessed with cooling trade winds that flowed through the open air spaces.
After lunch at the Art Museum’s outdoor cafe, we headed to the Iolani Palace. Over Christmas, I read one of my daughter’s textbooks about the last monarchs of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and the “transition” to a protectorate of the US. It’s called Lost Kingdom: Hawai’i’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, by Julia Flynn Siler. Now I will see firsthand many of the things discussed in the book, cementing what I learned.
King David Kalākaua (1836-1891), who built the palace, was the first Hawaiian king not of the King Kamehameha lineage. He is known as the Merrie Monarch, both because he loved to party, and because he brought back the hula, chanting, and other aspects of the Hawaiian culture that had been discouraged, even forbidden, when missionaries gained favored status with earlier royalty. He traveled the world, visiting European royalty, and brought back a taste for European pomp, and a desire to show the world that his kingdom was as good as, or even better than what he saw ‘out there.’
King Kalākaua went into debt creating a European-style palace with the twist of utilizing the latest technology. Iolani Palace had electricity in 1886, five years before the White House. Visitors were astonished at the wonderful site. Even Honolulu streets had electric lights three years before the White House. The Palace also had telephone service, though there were not many other receiving units in Honolulu at the time. And an invention we all appreciate, the flush toilet, was installed in the Palace, long before they were found elsewhere.
In order to afford this, he had to borrow money from foreigners, which led to the downfall of the monarchy. The more indebted he became, the more concessions he had to make to their demands.
The takeover in 1893 occurred during the reign of his heir, his sister Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917). In fact, she suffered the humiliation of being a prisoner in one room of the Palace for five months after her trial for treason. It is a sad story; I urge you to find out more about the overthrow of this sovereign nation. Now the Palace survives as a reminder of what was. It stands in stark contrast to the modern Honolulu that was built up around it.
I left the Palace feeling guilty by association with the haoles of that era. The more I read and see, the more I understand the sorrow and anger of the native Hawaiians.
For more essays on Honolulu and things to see there, see:
For an essay on the Hulihe’e Palace on the Big Island see From stone tools to telephone in only a century – Hulihe’e Palace.
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