Inspiration in the Hawaiian Islands

Attending museum conferences can bring on a range of emotions: anxiety over flying long distances, anticipation of being reunited with friends made through years of attending such meetings, satisfaction over a well-executed collections volunteer event, respect for the ceremony associated with years of tradition, inspiration following days of presentations, networking, and impromptu intense conversations, and finally, the grounding that occurs when you return to your home institution and you try to figure out how to implement these ideas that have now taken root in your mind.

It’s now been over a week since I traveled to Honolulu, Hawai’i for the 2011 Western Museums Association annual conference. This gathering of museum professionals from the Western states was made even richer by the co-organizing of the meetings by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. Our hosts were the Hawai’i Museums Association and the Pacific Islands Museum Association. This diverse assemblage of individuals made for an exciting week, made up of sessions ranging from the practical (planning for collections moves, the joys and necessity of inventories, understanding the role of appraisals, emergency response resources in the West) to the insightful (models for reviewing indigenous collections in museums, board meetings that inspire). A particularly ingenious feature of this year’s meetings was the “Tour & Talk” option of taking three hours out of your conference schedule to go off-site to a museum (in my case, the Mission Houses Museum) to hear a talk and get a behind-the-scenes tour. Our guide spoke of a topic so many museums are (unfortunately) becoming experts at: doing more with less. His many fine examples of ways to use volunteers gave us food for thought, and the tour through the Chamberlain and Frame houses elicited in me, a sense of wonder of the Native people of Hawai’i in the mid-19th century and the changes they faced as, at the same time, Alaska Natives were introduced to Yankee whalers and Russian and British traders.

Without a doubt, however, the most fun and rewarding times were spent in the company of the many registrars and collections managers I’ve gotten to know through my four years of officership in the Registrars Committee-Western Region (RC-WR). We started our time in Honolulu with a CSI:Registrars event (Collection Services Initiative) at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, operated by an all-volunteer organization, the Daughters of Hawai’i.

Collections Services Initiative volunteers with Daughters of Hawaii Regent Dale Bachman at Queen Emma Summer Palace. Photo courtesy of Malia Van Heukelem.

This beautiful Victorian-era home was the summer retreat of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV. Filled with objects from the late 19th-century, it was a complex combination of items of the Native Hawaiian monarchy and gifts from royalty the world over. RC-WR volunteers worked for a full day to inventory all of the objects in the public spaces, making note of conditions and suggestions for improving the overall care of the collections.

The next day, many of us attended pre-conference workshops; I was lucky enough to be added at the last-minute to the “Surveying and Assessing Collection Needs” seminar held at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts and taught by Janet Ruggles, Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC) Executive Director and Chief Conservator of Paper. I’m still absorbing all that I learned this day and look forward to sharing particular insights with my colleagues at UAMN.

Over the following days, the RC-WR crowd had many occasions to laugh and learn together. Our annual business meeting on Sunday was bittersweet: the end of my term as Vice-Chair, the beginning of a new term for four energetic and intelligent women from Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. The discussion of the future of our national organization, the RC-AAM, as introduced by our Chairperson Darlene Bialowski, and what it might mean for all of us in this large and powerful professional committee, left us pondering how we would each approach these coming changes.

The final day of the conference started with an inspiring keynote address by Ralph Regenvanu, MP, Minister of Justice and Community Services, Vanuatu. His talk, entitled “Getting Cultural Heritage on the National Agenda: A Case Study from Vanuatu” described efforts to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the indigenous people of Vanuatu, and how they are making progress towards the incorporation of indigenous concepts in the development of national policy.

As I sit in my Fairbanks home, the rumors of a first snowfall drifting thru comments on Facebook, I consider how lucky I am to have a rewarding career in a profession that fosters close relationships with colleagues both near and far. This WMA conference in the island paradise of Honolulu was a success because of all the incredible people who worked tirelessly to assemble a program that could be of use to museum professionals at all levels. I wish to send out a huge Mahalo to all of the people of WMA, ATALM, HMA and PIMA who made this happen. Now, my biggest challenge is trying not to be overly jealous of my Hawai’i friends who get to wake up to those beautiful sunrises and relax under the glorious sunsets every day… rough life you’ve got! 😉

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