Mix of pride and pain as Queen Liliʻuokalani's portrait debuts in Washington, D.C.
Six months ago, an oil portrait of Hawaiʻi’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, left ʻIolani Palace to travel across the Pacific Ocean to the nation’s capital.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio was fortunate to be there when the gold-leafed treasure left Hawaiʻi and when it was welcomed last week in Washington, D.C., as part of a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. It's the first time the 130-year-old oil portrait is on view outside of Hawaiʻi.
A group from Hawaiʻi made the trip for the opening of "1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions," including members of Hawaiʻi's royal societies and staff from ʻIolani Palace and the Hawaiʻi State Archives.
"From the moment that we went in that first morning to conduct our protocol and our blessing, it was just overwhelming and emotional, and you could just feel the mana of the queen in the room. That portrait is so powerful," said Arthur Aiu of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.
The Hawaiʻi delegation chanted the queen’s genealogy and sang "Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī" in a private gathering before the official public opening.
Tears flowed throughout as the music haunted the halls of the Portrait Gallery. For those in attendance, there was a mix of pride and pain.
The exhibit marks 125 years since the United States first acquired overseas territory through warfare and congressional action. Visitors are invited to contemplate how the political struggles in places like the Philippines and Hawaiʻi differed and, yet, were the same.
The telling of the queen's efforts to maintain the independence of the Hawaiian Kingdom and prevent annexation was deeply felt in the federal museum.
"It's hopeful that the story that we have to share will be shared amongst others, and realizing that we're not the only ones that have the same story — the others from Puerto Rico, from Cuba, from the Philippines, from Guam. We all share the same story," Aiu said.
Another powerful moment for the delegation was a special viewing of the Kūʻē Petitions. Many were able to find their ancestors listed among those who pledged their loyalty to the monarchy prior to annexation.
"The people of Hawaiʻi were very aware that this was a momentum that was building. And so in 1897, they organized the Kūʻē Petitions, which consisted of 27,000 signatures of men and women, Native Hawaiians, who did not want to become annexed to the United States," historian and curator Kate Clarke Lemay said during a tour with national media.
Aiu was able to find his great-grandmother Josephine's signature on the fragile papers.
"The fact that these pages are here and we actually saw the signatures, that was another wow moment for me personally, that I actually have koko on that paper," Aiu said, using the Hawaiian word for blood in reference to his ancestral lineage.
The group from Hawaiʻi departed the exhibit with one last tribute, the queen's song "ʻO Makalapua" about making a flower lei for Hawaiʻi's queen.
Read and listen back to the first part in this series about the exhibit, "1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions," on view through February 2024. The curators shared how they led the effort to better tell this story that they felt was missing in the federal institution.
This interview aired on The Conversation on May 4, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.