(Re)Generations: Discredited Research Becomes a Valuable Genealogical Resource


From 1920 until his death in 1925, anthropologist Louis Sullivan was in Hawaiʻi on assignment from Bishop Museum and the American Museum of Natural History to conduct a study associated with the then-popular eugenics movement.

Eugenics advocates selective breeding and forced sterilization to improve the mental and physical qualities of a human population. As part of his research, Sullivan took 938 photographs and made 44 plaster busts of Native Hawaiian families on all of the major islands except Niʻihau to identify and measure the physical features of a “pure Hawaiian race.”

Data gathered by Sullivan and other efforts to support a scientific theory for racial categorization and superiority were publicly debunked in statements released by leading scientists affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) beginning in 1950. Although they declared race is not an accurate indicator of biological differences, racial discrimination continues to this day with often tragic results. It has wrongly justified slavery, genocide, arson, violence, vandalism and other atrocities.

“(Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific Racism in Hawaiʻi” – a new, original exhibit on view through October 24 in Bishop Museum’s J.M. Long Gallery – is based on the Sullivan Collection of photos and busts. Three curators chose the images and artifacts and wrote the accompanying text for the exhibit: Dr. Jillian Swift, the museum’s Curator of Archaeology; Leah Caldeira, the museum’s Director of Library and Archives; and Dr. Keolu Fox, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego.

According to Swift, a major source of inspiration for the exhibit’s concept, including its title, was “Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawaiʻi and Oceania” authored by University of Utah Professor Maile Arvin. On pages 20 and 21 of her book Arvin writes: “Regeneration signals new growth and life cultivated after destruction, as in the plants that gradually return to a charred landscape after a volcanic flow. Regenerative actions seek the return of function, balance, or power, as in the regrowth of a starfish’s limb or a moʻo’s (lizard, gecko) tail.”

“We felt the purpose of Sullivan’s portraits has transformed in the 100 years since he created them,” Swift said. “What was once a collection of ʻscientific’ photographs for now-discredited research has become so much more significant as a genealogical resource.”

It’s important to note that this transformation is being led by Native Hawaiian descendants who are viewing the Sullivan Collection and adding information about the pictures in it. Through these interactions, the collection has been regenerated as a vehicle for making important genealogical connections.”

When Sullivan created the busts and photographs, he recorded the names of the subjects, their geographic location and their “race.” Missing, however, was the human element – tidbits about their work, their personality, their likes and dislikes, their skills and talents. Five families that have photos of relatives in the Sullivan Collection are spotlighted in (Re)Generations: Hoʻolapa from Kahaluʻu, island of Hawaiʻi; Kaleohano/Wentworth from Hoʻōpūloa, island of Hawaiʻi; Kaʻaukai from Kaʻū, island of Hawaiʻi; Akona from Kōloa, Kauaʻi; and Duvauchelle from Pūkoʻo, Molokai. To flesh out their ancestors’ life stories, descendants agreed to be interviewed by the curators.

“Without the generous participation and contributions from them and their ʻohana, (Re)Generations would not have been possible,” Swift said. “Their knowledge, memories and perspectives brought new meaning to the Sullivan Collection. We’re so grateful for their trust and willingness to collaborate with us; it was a profound, moving and joyful experience.”

Another notable section in (Re)Generations explores how genetic measurements instead of physical characteristics are now being used to understand human diversity; the notion of “biological races” was dispelled decades ago. In fact, 99.9 percent of humans’ genetic makeup is the same, and more differences have been discovered within a population (“race”) than between different populations.

While DNA has become the basis for measuring human variation, the exhibit observes that even the most sophisticated tests can’t determine true “identity” because they do not consider unquantifiable factors such as religion, morals, values, beliefs, traditions, relationships and family histories – in essence, what actually makes people unique. As one of the information boards points out, “The connections we choose, are born into, or are gifted are often stronger than simple biology.”

“As curators, one of our goals was to give viewers food for thought – to urge them to question why we see racial differences and racial hierarchy and to dismiss the idea that there is any truth behind them,” Swift said. “We hope they will recognize the nefarious social mechanisms that spawned racial prejudice and continue to perpetuate it. For me, building the exhibit during an isolating global pandemic underscored how important it is for people to care about, appreciate and respect each other. Nurturing these meaningful connections makes us more resilient.”

(RE)Generations Activities

On select dates through October 7, Benefactor, Visionary, Stewardship Circle and Lifetime Bishop Museum members and up to two guests may sign up for a 30-minute tour of the exhibit guided by either exhibit co-curators Dr. Jillian Swift, Leah Caldeira or Education Programs Manager Kapalikū Maile.

Groups are limited to six people, mask wearing and social distancing will be enforced, and pre-registration is required by going to www.bishopmuseum.org/regenerations. For more information about this museum membership benefit, email Membership@BishopMuseum.org or call 847-8296.

In addition, the museum has launched a free (Re)Generations Program Series on such topics as eugenics and ethics in museum curation. The next confirmed talk, featuring Dr. Maile Arvin, assistant professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah, is set for August 12 at 6 p.m. As this issue went to press, whether her presentation will be in person or via Zoom had not been determined. Check the exhibit’s website listed above for updates.