National Museum of American History Showcases “Creating Hawai’i”

July 20, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will present an Asian Pacific American display, “Creating Hawai’i,” opening Aug. 21 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hawai’i becoming the 50th state in the union. The display is part of the special cases within the museum’s Artifact Walls that highlight anniversaries, new acquisitions to the collections and research findings. The Artifact Walls, which line the central corridors of the first and second floors, showcase an enormous variety of objects, from the everyday to the extraordinary, to convey the astonishing depth and breadth of the museum’s collections.

“Creating Hawai’i” is more than meets the eye. It is not merely a history of the Islands, it is also an opportunity to examine the concept of “perception vs. reality” with Hawai’i as a point of interest. The showcase begins with a common, stereotypical look at the Hawaiian Islands, including professional surfer Rochelle Ballard’s surfboard and a record cover for the film “Blue Hawaii,” starring Elvis Presley. These first objects represent the world’s perception of Hawai’i as a tropical paradise, a stretch of beach and a carefree state-of-mind. However, as the showcase continues, visitors are encouraged to look beyond the leis and discover a land of great history and a diverse and inclusive population.

“As of this year, Hawai’i has been a part of the United States for half a century, a milestone worth commemorating,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This showcase highlights the history, nationalism, and unique culture of the Aloha State and allows the museum to share these collections with the public.”

Hawai’i, a collection of islands, is located in the center of the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,300 miles southwest of the mainland United States. The islands were “discovered” in 1778 by British explorer James Cook. The rapid influx of traders, merchants, missionaries and immigrant workers that followed brought an overwhelming Western influence to the Hawaiian Islands, causing a transition from subsistence farming to a cash economy and an unfortunate loss of tradition. The ever-growing presence of outsiders affected native Hawaiians acclimation to change and a different lifestyle.

Seeking a strong military position in the Pacific, the United States established a naval base in Hawai’i in the late 19th century. Despite protests and the opposition of many Hawaiians, the Islands were annexed as a territory by the United States in 1898. Finally, on Aug. 21, 1959, Hawai’i became the 50th and final state of the union.

The display is divided into three chronological sections, each depicting a period of the Islands’ history. The first segment begins in 1810, which marks the year Hawai’i became organized under one monarchy. Visitors witness the transition from a subsistence lifestyle to a cash economy through such objects as a sugarcane-cutter’s hat and a whaler’s harpoon. The next segment reveals Western domination of the Hawaiian Islands, from the United States’ acquisition of Pearl Harbor to the beginnings of the tourism industry. On view are the American advertisements and crafts that reshaped Hawaiian culture and traditions. Finally, visitors once again are exposed to objects commonly associated with Hawai’i, including Hawaiian shirts and hula costumes, but this time with an insider’s look at the reality of the Islands. From kingdom to republic, and from territory to state, “Creating Hawai’i” showcases the reality of Hawai’i and the extensive changes in tradition and diversity throughout its history.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. After a two-year renovation and a dramatic transformation, the museum shines new light on American history, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).