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Article used with permission of Glenn Wharton

The Restoration of a King
Glenn Wharton
October 30, 2000

In 1996 I was contracted to perform a condition assessment of the Kamehameha I monument in North Kohala. The monument is the original cast of the gilt bronze sculpture that is installed in front of the Judiciary Building in downtown Honolulu. It is located in Kapa’au, a small town near Kamehameha’s birthplace on the Island of Hawai’i. My assessment was part of a survey administered by the Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts, and funded through the Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!) project of Heritage Preservation and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

My mission was to assess the condition of a number of sculptures on various islands and make recommendations for their conservation. Before traveling to North Kohala I was told that the bronze was probably corroded because it had once been submerged in the sea, and had subsequently been exposed to over one hundred years of rain, wind and high levels of ultraviolet light from the tropical sun. I was also told that its corroded bronze surface could not be seen because it was covered with paint. My goal was to develop a mechanism for removing the paint, stabilize the corrosion, and return the figure to the artist’s original intent.

As a sculpture conservator who has worked in the field for over twenty years, this mission was standard fare. After arriving in Kapa’au, I took documentation photographs of the monument and extracted small samples of paint and corrosion for analysis. All was going according to plan until I walked across the street to purchase souvenir post cards, where I was confronted by a shopkeeper who had noticed me standing around the monument for several hours taking notes. She wanted to know what I was up to. After I described my task, she implored me not to strip him of his brightly colored paint, and not to make him look like the cast of Kamehameha I in Honolulu. She told me that people in North Kohala paint their sculpture in life-like colors because it helps them relate to him as a human being. She described annual celebrations on Kamehameha Day, in which Hawaiian chants are offered at sunrise, leis are draped over his shoulders, hula is performed, and a community parade is held in his honor.

As a sculpture conservator from the mainland with only a basic understanding of Hawaiian culture, I was not prepared for this. Rarely do people confront me with such strong feelings about the preserving their cultural heritage. I returned to finish my physical analysis of the sculpture, but could
not get this conversation out of my mind. Here was a situation in which a community had physically altered a work of art. Was painting the sculpture a sacrilege, like adding a mustache to the Mona Lisa, or was it a local custom that should take priority over the artist’s original expression? Who was I as an outsider to recommend that layers of paint and history be stripped away? What was the artist’s original conception, anyway? What did it look like when it was first cast?

After returning home and wrestling with these issues, I wrote in my recommendations that substantial
research needed to be undertaken, and that the community should be included in deciding how the monument should be conserved.

Four years since making this recommendation, I am now working with members of the North Kohala community in a project that is far beyond the conservator’s ordinary call of duty. I joined forces with a team of local citizens to develop community dialogue over whether the sculpture should be painted or not. We have used this question as a vehicle to engage local people in a process of re-thinking and re-claiming their past. Elementary school children are creating art projects related to the monument, high school students are holding a formal community debate, and kupuna are talking story in informal gatherings to invoke public memory of early celebrations of the monument. Keola John Lake has written a hula ki’i script about the monument in Kapaÿau that is being performed by local kumu hula Raylene Lancaster and her halau. Together we are testing the waters for a socially engaged conservation process. The aim of this article is to summarize my research on the sculpture and describe the conservation project that is currently unfolding.

The project is being administered by the Hawai’i Alliance for Arts Education, in participation with Keahi Allen of the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission. The Alliance has been active in working with community members on related arts projects, to further engage their interests. We are working locally with the Kohala Hawaiian Civic Club and the Kohala Kamehameha Celebration Committee. These two organizations are in communication with the Kohala Senior Citizens Club, the Ka’umanu Society, and the Royal Order of Kamehameha. Funding has been procured from a combination of sources, including: the Hawai’i Community Foundation, the Atherton Foundation, the Getty Trust, the Save Outdoor Sculpture Project! (Heritage Preservation & Smithsonian Institution), the National Center for Preservation Technology & Training, and Americans for the Arts Animating Democracy Lab funded by the Ford Foundation. A documentary film is being made of the project by Ki’i Productions, in conjunction with Hawai’i Public Television.