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New institute empowers Indigenous museum professionals across Hawaiʻi, Pacific islands

Kuʻuleilani Reyes, left, and Pamela Alconcel, right, build a box to house a finely woven mat from New Guinea.
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
/
HPR
Kuʻuleilani Reyes, left, and Pamela Alconcel, right, build a box to house a finely woven mat from New Guinea.

A new museum institute aimed at training Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders launched this month in Honolulu. The program aims to care for Indigenous collections from an Indigenous perspective.

Twenty individuals from Hawaiʻi and the Pacific including Saipan, American Samoa and the Marshall Islands spent the last month learning best practices in preservation management, disaster planning, and archival storage with Māori textile conservator Rangi Te Kanawa.

"They're building archival boxes that encase the artifacts. In many cases they havenʻt got the facilities that our national museums have and there’s no control over the environment. So they’re creating a microenvironment in an archival box," Te Kanawa said.

Māori textile conservator Rangi Te Kanawa builds an archival box.
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
/
HPR
Māori textile conservator Rangi Te Kanawa builds an archival box.

Some of the boxes have drop walls, some have little windows so you can see the artifacts. Cohort member Kuʻuleilani Reyes, a librarian at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, hopes her box does the job.

"Mamake māua e hana i kekahi pahu no ka moena mai New Guinea. Ua nani nō a ʻauliʻi hoʻi ka moena, no laila ʻo kēia ka pahu e pale ai."

Reyes and fellow cohort member Pam Alconcel of the Lānaʻi Culture and Heritage Center are building a box to house a finely woven mat from New Guinea. All of these archival boxes will be used to house items currently held at the Bishop Museum.

Noelle Kahanu, manager of the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Museum Institute, says the goal of the project is to build capacity and strengthen the representation of NHPI professionals in this field dedicated to caring for Indigenous collections from an Indigenous perspective.

"As crazy as that sounds, that’s groundbreaking because when they talk about museum best practices, it’s going to be from a western perspective. And so what does it mean when we think of Indigenous notions of care?" Kahanu said.

Fijian archaeologist Tarisi Vunidilo, secretary general for the Pacific Island Museum Association, says Indigenous people have a long history of caring for treasured items and museums can benefit from this. She experienced this during an insect infestation of mats at the Fiji Museum.

"They knew that my mother was a mat weaver, and so my mom explained to them that this is how we do it and one of them was sunning the mat, which is to a palangi conservator it’s a no-no. But for Indigenous weavers, that’s what makes a mat strong and live longer," Vunidilo said.

Vunidilo helped Kahanu coordinate the museum institute and sees it as a way to empower Indigenous museum staff across Oceania.

"And then when they go back to their own island homes, a lot of the participants are saying they are going to do their own workshops to teach others who weren’t able to come," Vunidilo told HPR.

And that’s the whole idea of the institute says Kahanu – weaving a network of care for Oceania collections.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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