By Hattie Keonaona Hapai
Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is one of the oldest continually running museums in the continental United States. It is located in Salem, Massachusetts, which was once one of the country’s richest cities – a hub of trade and “exploration.” Salem is also fewer than 20 miles from Boston, the home of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which began sending missionaries to Hawaiʻi in 1820.
During its nearly 225 years of existence, the PEM has gathered an extensive collection of more than 900 pieces of barkcloth (kapa) from throughout the Pacific, Australia, and even Indonesia. Items in the collection were acquired between the late 1700s to the mid-1900s. As a Long-Term Native American Fellow at the PEM, I was privileged to be able to engage with this beautiful and historic collection.
I am Hattie Hapai, the child of Halealoha Ayau and Noelle Kahanu. I received my Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in May of 2021. That summer, I joined the Native American Fellowship (NAF) program online with the PEM, working in Collections Management with a specific interest in conservation.
In the fall, I moved to Salem, Massachusetts, as a Long-Term Fellow, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and worked in the conservation lab on a project generously funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to provide conservation care for this collection with the eventual goal of rehousing them in custom-ordered cabinetry.
While working in conservation, some of my best “kumu” have been the kapa itself, which holds the stories of those who helped make them and also, unfortunately, that bears the evidence of previous substandard collector and museum practices that were once deemed acceptable. The same kapa that teaches us about techniques used for designing with the lapa or stamping with the ʻohe kāpala also suffers scars inflicted by greedy and uninformed “professionals” who cut up large pieces of kapa into smaller “samples” for interested researchers or for trade with other institutions.
One of the pieces of kapa I worked on was a kapa moe (blanket), which had been folded multiple times, its surface covered in a layer of dust and soot. It has a beautiful, stamped design but when I opened it up, I found it had a large piece of the kilohana (the outside, decorated sheet of kapa) missing. In the same breath that I am filled with awe at the beauty of the craftsmanship, I am also frustrated with individuals from the past who believed themselves worthy of cutting such a beloved kapa.
I feel a deep joy in being able to provide care for objects that are so loved by both their home communities and the communities of people who are able to meet them away from home. They are put on display throughout the museum and are loved by both visitors and researchers. It also provides a chance for building pilina between institutions which may share collections, and pilina between these lovely works of art and people.
Yet, I also strongly believe that museums are not the final destination for culturally significant objects. For those people who are caring for cultural collections, part of the goal should be to ensure that such objects are given the best care until their next transition, especially if this means being returned home.
Hattie Keonaona Niolopa Matsuo Hapai is Kanaka ʻŌiwi, the daughter of Edward Halealoha Ayau and Noelle M.K.Y Kahanu. She was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, and her lineage extends to the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, and Molokaʻi. Hattie received her B.A. in anthropology, with a minor in Japanese, from UH Mānoa. She is also a student of kapa maker Kumu Verna Takashima. Hattie has an interest in museum conservation and collections care, which developed through her many visits to museums throughout Europe and Aotearoa, and she is learning to share in the family’s kuleana of repatriation and reburial.