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Queen Liliʻuokalani portrait travels to National Portrait Gallery for upcoming exhibit

The official portrait of Hawaiʻi’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, was taken off the wall at ʻIolani Palace and placed in a special crate in preparation for a journey to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

On Monday morning, a Royal Hawaiian Movers van pulled onto palace grounds to begin moving the 130-year-old oil painting.

The Royal Order of Kamehameha was there to send off the portrait with an oli, a chant asking for protection on this journey.

A portrait painting of Queen Liliʻuokalani at ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu by William F. Cogswell.
ʻIolani Palace/Hawaiʻi State Archives
Wikimedia Commons
Painted in 1892 by American artist William Cogswell, the portrait features Liliʻuokalani in her famed ribbon gown that was worn during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, wearing the Royal Order of Kalākaua, and with the diamond butterfly brooch in her hair, which she purchased upon her arrival in London.

"We were very fortunate that the National Portrait Gallery does this all over the world. So they flew in four art handlers from a specialized company who have vast experience and understand these things to make sure it could come off the wall safely and do a physical examination before this even occurred," said state archivist Adam Jansen.

"It is being escorted from the time it left the palace to the time it gets on the airplane. It's gonna have folks in Los Angeles waiting to receive it. There, immediately get loaded onto a truck and then have a team of drivers drive it nonstop," he said.

The portrait, on loan to the palace from the Hawaiʻi State Archives, will be part of a Smithsonian exhibit called “1898: Visual Culture and U.S. Imperialism in the Caribbean and the Pacific.”

Jansen said the exhibit will examine the effects of imperialism on people living in the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaiʻi — and the realities of their loss of self-determination.

"So the fact that the federal government is telling the story from that perspective, in this day and age, I think is very, very relevant because what we're seeing with this last election cycle is this rise of hyper-nationalism, and all of these laws coming out where you can't teach any history in school unless the U.S. is the hero of the story, and that's not the reality of it," Jansen said.

"The fact that they're telling this story, I think, is very important because they're anticipating a million people are going to see this exhibition," he told The Conversation. "My understanding is, as soon as you get into the gallery, that is going to be the first thing everybody sees."

The exhibit will mark 125 years since the U.S. first acquired overseas territories through warfare and congressional action.

In return for the loan of the queen’s portrait, Smithsonian staff will clean it and repair the gold leaf frame.

"They're going to send the frame to one of the finest restorers on the East Coast. So again, it's an opportunity that we don't have. They're going to be able to leverage all of their infrastructure and their contacts to really give it the best care," Jansen said.

The Royal Order of Kamehameha was on hand at ʻIolani Palace to send off Queen Liliʻuokalani's portrait with a chant asking for protection on its journey. (Nov. 14, 2022)
Catherine Cruz
The Royal Order of Kamehameha was on hand at ʻIolani Palace to send off Queen Liliʻuokalani's portrait with a chant asking for protection on its journey. (Nov. 14, 2022)

Jansen said the portrait, before this journey, had only made one short trip from ʻIolani Palace to Washington Place and back.

Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha are also expected to be on hand when the exhibit opens in late April 2023.

"We kind of look at this as the queen went to Washington, D.C. many times to try to tell her story and it fell on deaf ears in many, many ways. And this time, it's the federal government telling her story for all the world to hear," said Paula Akana, executive director of ʻIolani Palace. "It's really bittersweet to see her leave and to hear them, the Royal Order chant and hear Aloha ʻOe."

Official portrait of Queen Liliʻuokalani transported out of ʻIolani Palace on Nov. 14, 2022

This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 14, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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