A new exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art depicts King David Kalakaua in a different light — as a savvy leader who embraced the artistic and technological advancements of his time to forge a national identity for Hawaii and demonstrate to world leaders that Hawaii was a sovereign nation worthy of being dealt with on equal terms.

Five Hawaii organizations contributed paintings and artifacts to the show titled “Hooulu Hawaii: the King Kalakaua Era,” including some objects never seen before in public.

The exhibit signs are written in English and Hawaiian, which is a first for a major art exhibit in the islands.

“As we walk through the exhibition, we are hearing museum-goers speak Hawaiian,” says Susan Palmore, a docent leading visitors through the displays.

Honolulu Museum of Art King David Kalakaua show.
The exhibit invites visitors to see King David Kalakaua in a different light. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

What also makes this exhibit different is that it shines an unwavering positive light on Kalakaua, a controversial leader often blamed for hastening the demise of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

He is routinely criticized for draining the Hawaiian treasury with extravagant spending that left the nation in debt to foreigners, for aligning himself with self-serving businessmen, and for signing the so-called Bayonet Constitution in 1887, a document written by white businessmen that stripped the monarchy of most of its power.

Kalakaua was king of Hawaii from 1874 until his death in 1891. His sister, Liliuokalani, was named his successor. A group of Caucasian businessmen and sugar planters overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and forced Liliuokalani to abdicate.

The exhibit sidesteps the negative to show Kalakaua instead as a man of towering intelligence and curiosity who made use of foreign technology and material culture such as royal orders and formal dress and photography to try to gain recognition for Hawaii as a sovereign nation. Displays make the point that Kalakaua understood the value of using symbols that non-Hawaiians could understand.

Healoha Johnston next to Hawaiian capes featured in the Kalakaua exhibit. Hawaiian alii in the 19th century displayed the capes as a sign of their pride in their material culture. Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art

From the moment visitors enter the exhibition that touts 19th century technology and art in Hawaii, they are urged to make use of a key feature of today’s technology: their smart phones.

A sign includes this sentence: “We invite visitors to take selfies in the gallery and utilize technology as King Kalakaua did to circulate positive imagery representing the cultural values and identity of Hawaii.”

Honolulu Museum of Art King David Kalakaua telephones. These phones were hard wired from the palace to the boat house, makai of the palace. High tech King Kalakaua.
These telephones were hard-wired from the palace to the boat house makai of the palace. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The idea of a freewheeling selfie fest in the gallery is so novel that a museum guard kept pestering me when I was taking pictures to ask if I was actually shooting videos, which is not allowed.

Kalakaua tried to portray Hawaii as a modern sovereign nation during the tumultuous years before the overthrow when the islands were teeming with artistic innovation and ideas brought by foreigners, which Hawaiians incorporated into their own art, music and technology.

Healoha Johnston, curator of the exhibit, describes Kalakaua as an early branding genius who understood the value of modern symbols and technology. She says he strategically used Hawaii’s material culture blended with introduced ideas to present the Hawaiian Kingdom’s government as “simultaneously authorized by the deep past yet progressive in its methods.”

Johnston is the museum’s first Native Hawaiian curator. She says she expressed her idea for the Kalakaua exhibit more than three years ago when she was interviewed at the museum for the job of curator of the arts of Hawaii, Oceania, Africa and the Americas.

Pau riders Honolulu Museum Art King David Kalakaua uniform with incorporated Hawaiian motifs.
The exhibit includes a jacket once owned by Walter Murray Gibson, who became prime minister of Hawaii in 1882. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kalakaua dressed his diplomats in formal European attire, yet their jackets were Hawaii-themed, featuring gold embroidered images of taro and koa leaves. The exhibit includes a jacket once owned by Walter Murray Gibson, who became prime minister of Hawaii in 1882.

Kalakaua created four new royal orders to present to foreign leaders when he traveled — medals to be worn on sashes, chains or neck ribbons. The exhibition features two large cases of royal orders that Kalakaua received or bestowed on others. A computer play station in the gallery allows visitors to create their own royal orders.

Wherever Kalakaua traveled, he visited photography studios to have pictures taken of him so he could offer the images to newspapers or exchange them with world monarchs for their own photos.

“Kalakaua was a celebrity,” Johnston says. “He was the king of Hawaii. All kinds of people purchased photos of him from the studios to put in their photo albums.”

Pau riders Honolulu Museum Art King David Kalakaua Lantern slide.
This famous photo of King David Kalakaua is actually tiny. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A surprise at the beginning of the exhibit is the realization that the famous photo of Kalakaua used on all the promotional literature is very tiny; it is a lantern slide of an original photograph taken in 1880 by J.J. Williams that’s only slightly larger than 3 square inches.

Another surprise is what’s believed to be the first photograph of hula dancers, a hand-tinted ambrotype (a positive photograph on glass made by a variant of the wet plate collodion process) of two female dancers believed to have been taken in 1858.

In the exhibit’s catalogue, Johnston writes, “To be associated with photography was to be associated with science, something Kalakaua picked up on and leveraged during his reign.”

Much of the exhibit’s focus is on Kalakaua’s around-the-world trip in 1881 (Kalakaua was the first head of state to circumnavigate the globe) and a trip to England by Queen Kapiolani and then-Crown Princess Liliuokalani in 1887 to celebrate with Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee.

Kalakaua undertook the nine-month long journey to learn more about other countries, build alliances with foreign leaders and secure immigration contracts for laborers for Hawaii’s growing sugar industry.

This may be the first photograph of hula dancers, believed to have been taken in 1858. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

By 1892, Kalakaua had developed 93 legations and consulates around the world. He also sponsored a study abroad program for promising young Hawaiian leaders to travel as far as China, England and Italy to study topics such as engineering, law and medicine.

Kalakaua’s own interest in technology is illustrated in a glass case containing two of his telephones from his boathouse emblazoned with the royal seal; he had  other phones installed in Iolani Palace.

Strangely, there is no architectural photo of Iolani Palace in the exhibit. That’s despite the fact that Kalakaua, after meeting Thomas Edison in New York on his world trip, became so enamored with electricity that he installed electric lights in the royal quarters in 1886 before either the White House or Buckingham Palace were electrified.

Also missing from the exhibit is more information about Kalakaua’s own thoughts from his writings as he struggled, often alone, with the responsibility of guiding Hawaii into the modern world.

Perhaps this is appropriate. Museum exhibitions are not created to tell all, but rather to prompt conversations.

“Hooulu Hawaii: the Kalakaua Era” will renew interest in the king and the irony of his life: Did his efforts to embrace the modern world also hasten the end of Hawaii as a sovereign nation?

“Whoever heard of a king leaving his kingdom for nine months?” asked David W. Forbes, annotator of Liluokalani’s autobiography, “Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.” Especially during a time when so many in Hawaii were beginning to plot to overthrow the monarchy.

Kalakaua may have saved the hula and other Hawaii cultural forms, but he failed to save the kingdom.

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