Smithsonian exhibit connects island experiences during US imperialism in 1898
To mark 125 years since the United States first acquired overseas territories through warfare and congressional action, including Hawaiʻi, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington unveiled a powerful new exhibit last week called "1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions."
What did the people of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaiʻi and Guam gain or lose in the process of the transfer of power in 1898? The Smithsonian exhibit attempts to fill in the missing Indigenous perspectives during that turning point in U.S. history.
It challenges audiences to examine the political history of America given its own struggle to win independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War. Visitors are invited to contemplate how the islands’ political struggles differed and, yet, were the same.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio was in Washington for a media tour before the exhibit opened on April 28 and spoke to the exhibit's curators: historian Kate Clarke Lemay and Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture and Latino art and history.
"As a Puerto Rican and as a specialist in Latino history, I remember the very first few times I walked through the museum after being appointed to my job thinking to myself, 'The main year through which I relate to the United States as a Puerto Rican is not in any way pinpointed through these hallways,'" Caragol said.
"I thought to myself, 'How can you be charged with representing a population that is not there in the collection if you don't address the historical chapter that puts that population in relation with the U.S.?'"
For the past six years, the two curators have led the effort to better tell this story that they felt was missing in the halls of the federal institution. This exhibit is on view through February 2024.
"It has a through line of consequences that many people are aware of, particularly in the Pacific, and some people aren't. And it's sort of an afterthought for people who maybe have never been to Guam or maybe have never been to Hawaiʻi, or the Philippines," Lemay told HPR.
"And as someone who's interested in military history, I like how art helps animate that history. I like that it helps us remember. It's bringing to life some of these people who otherwise might have been lost to this history," she added.
A centerpiece of the exhibit is a 130-year-old oil painting of Hawaiʻi’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. It is on loan from the Hawaiʻi State Archives.
The painting was on display at ʻIolani Palace before its journey to the gallery in November. In return, the Smithsonian Institution cleaned it and repaired the gold leaf frame.
"I traveled to Hawaiʻi twice and I met with people, scholars, curators, people who have real history in Hawaiʻi," Lemay said. "It was so meaningful to be able to organize that loan, to work with the Hawaiian community on it, and now she's in our galleries."
"I recognize that this is a continuation of her diplomacy, a continuation of her voice in Washington, D.C., being heard and being put forward from a federal museum. And I know that that is very significant in the long history of the Hawaiian Royal Government," Lemay said.
Read part two in this series about Queen Liliʻuokalani's portrait in Washington, D.C.:
"1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions" will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery through Feb. 25, 2024. Click here to view the online version of this exhibit. A tie-in book will also be available for online purchase later this year.
This interview aired on The Conversation on May 3, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.