Denby Fawcett: New Iolani Palace Exhibit Will Describe The Hawaiian Kingdom's Overthrow - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

We have museums in Hawaii that focus on art and culture, volcanoes and natural history, but as of yet no museum specifically details the genesis of the Hawaiian Kingdom, its overthrow and the modern political movement to restore the islands’ once independent nationhood.

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Friends of Iolani Palace, the nonprofit that manages the palace, has raised more than $3 million to create such a permanent display in the basement of the palace.

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

Akana is the executive director of Friends of Iolani Palace.

The galleries — to be completed in 2024 — will be the first major new exhibit the palace has undertaken in decades.

Most recent work on the building has been to repair and maintain the 19th century structure.

“It will be exciting for visitors to be given an understanding of Hawaii’s history all the way from the Kamehameha dynasty to the constitutional monarchy to the sovereignty movement,” says Akana.

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

“But after seeing the first and second floors dealing with this one period, they often want to know more about the earlier days of the kingdom and what led to its overthrow and what happened after Hawaii was no longer an independent nation,” she says.

Most recent work on the building has been to repair and maintain the 19th century structure. The palace hasn’t had a major new exhibit for 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 displays that are planned to be authoritative rather than incendiary.

“It is an opportunity to present a Hawaiian-centered narrative of what happened,” says Noenoe Silva, one of the content experts hired to write the text.

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

She and the other content experts have spent months collaborating to reach agreement on accurate wording for the text on the panels that will be not be offensive to visitors.

“They will be telling hard truths. A truth is a truth. That is the value of fact-based history. The goal is to give a clear understanding of what happened,” says palace curator Leona Hamano.

Eight new galleries will be created in rooms in the palace basement that until now have been used for storage.

Currently the basement has six galleries with displays that sometimes seem frozen in time such as Queen Liliuokalani’s jewelry collection, Kalakaua’s assortment of medals and ribbons, cases with swords and koa calabashes and other royal items. The rooms fail to give a 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 called “Hawaii’s Story” that traces the steps leading up to the 1893 overthrow, the overthrow itself and how its aftermath continues to impact people today.

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

The telling of the expanded story of the kingdom’s demise and its aftereffects might be uncomfortable for some visitors as they consider the hard-hitting information in the new galleries, especially if they are unfamiliar with Hawaii’s history, including the fact that the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by American businessmen and planters and there are active movements today to restore sovereignty.

Another new gallery called Hawaiian Diplomacy Gallery will emphasize the royal leaders’ work to preserve and strengthen their nation and gain official American and international recognition for Hawaii as an independent country.

The gallery will point out the far-reaching diplomatic relations Hawaii had between 1866 and 1900 with more than 100 consulates and ligations in countries across the globe, including Russia, Japan, China, Germany and Tahiti as well as France and England where the kingdom had diplomatic representatives in multiple towns and cities.

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

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

“How many monarchs of that time do we know of that left their nests, seeking what was out there in the much wider world and absorbing what would be valuable to bring back? Kalakaua was adventurous; he had no fear, much like the early Polynesian navigators 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 clothes from the monarchy period.

A gallery called Contemporary Movements will feature the political quests in full motion today, such as campaigns to protect land rights and Hawaii’s 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. As Hawaiians, we feel connected to it today as a living entity where we can come together to feel how the issues so compelling in the past continue to be part of the present,” says scholar Silva.


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


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