Art

An Exhibition Critically Explores the History of Missionaries in Hawai’i

Pulling objects from the collections of Williams College, “The Field is the World” questions how these contentious histories have existed and how they can change.

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art (all images courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art, photos by Jim Gipe)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In August 1806, five students on the campus of Williams College took refuge from a sudden thunderstorm beside a haystack and vowed to commit themselves to spreading the Gospel around the world. This is Ground Zero of the American overseas missionary movement.

For many people, this moment marked the start of an outpouring of generosity and benevolence that saved souls and brought distant lands into the modern world. Only recently has another narrative been recognized — one of shameless spiritual imperialism that trampled native cultures and eventually devolved into explicit political and economic oppression.

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art
Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art

The watershed moment in 1806, known as the Haystack Meeting, is marked on the campus by a stone monument in a park near a dormitory. Across the campus, an exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art examines one of the regions where it resounded the most. “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making takes a close look at a history that, for generations, was considered uncritically. Pulling objects from the college’s collections, the exhibition questions how these contentious histories have existed and how they can change.

“Both of these rooms reflect on the ways histories are constructed and told, in particular at different times in the past here at Williams,” Assistant Professor of Art Kailani Polzak, who co-curated the exhibit with WCMA’s Deputy Director Sonnet Kekilia Coggins, told me. “It is about the ways in which collecting and display have been wielded to impose intellectual, moral, or spiritual order on the world.”

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art

In the museum’s historic rotunda is a collection of objects collected by the Lyceum of Natural History, a student society founded in 1835 to jump start the study of natural sciences. The group organized expeditions to places like Nova Scotia and Florida, fielded donations from alumni, and exchanged objects with other museums. But many of the objects were forgotten, and were rediscovered in 1986, crammed in a box in a dorm basement.

The eclectic collection of 64 objects includes shoes, jewelry, spears, ritual objects, and animal specimens. For this exhibition, each is given its own carefully crafted display case, which includes an original label featuring the original vague or incorrect information, with updated information handwritten next to it.

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art
Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art

“These modes of expertise can be questioned,” Polzak said. “The way we understand things is always an ongoing process. There is never a moment we are done — we are always relearning and reframing.”

One object from the Lyceum box commences the second portion of the two-room exhibition, and opens a window into the College’s relationship with Hawai’i. It is a “dog-tooth ankle adornment,” or, more precisely, a kupe’e niho ilio, which would have been worn during dances. Its simple but powerful presentation respects the richness of its function. A significant element of its display is an original oli, or welcoming chant, written by Nālamakū Ahsing, a current Williams student and Hawaiian, played on an overhead speaker. The oli is a reminder that it comes from a living people.

In addition, five thematic displays use archival material to examine different aspects of the relationship between Williams and Hawai’i. Some include images of Hawaiian culture and letters collected by alumnus Samuel Chapman Armstrong (class of 1862), who gathered transcriptions of Hawaiian mele, narrative poems. Others focus on the Haystack Meeting and its monument on campus, as well as images and artifacts from the royal court at the end of the century, when the sovereign, independent kingdom of Hawai’i was being relentlessly undermined by the Americans living there.

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art

The exhibition design, by Associate Professor of Theater David Gürçay-Morris, prioritizes clarity and dignity for each item. An audio element reminds us that this is an ongoing story. It records the diverse perspectives of a Congregationalist minister, a Hawaiian student, professors of history and religion from Williams and from Hawaii, and others — although none of the speakers are specifically identified in the continuous narrative. “We wanted people to understand there are all of these different perspectives, instead of picking and choosing from among what they are already sympathetic to,” Polzak said.

The unexpectedly deep connection between the college in Williamstown and the Pacific islands, 5,000 miles away, is outlined with an extensive timeline along a wall, which highlights what was happening in each place. It mentions figures such as Sanford B. Dole, the son of missionaries who came to Williams in the 1860s, where he and other missionary descendants called themselves “the Cannibals,” and were active in the Lyceum. Dole and two others from that group would help draft the “Bayonet Constitution” of 1887, which accelerated the process of undermining native Hawaiian leadership. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1893, Dole would serve as the Republic’s first president, until completing the handover to American power a few years later.

Installation view of “The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making, Williams College Museum of Art

Altogether about 30 Williams alumni in the 19th century either went to Hawaii as missionaries, or were the children of missionaries who came to Williams and then went back. “The Field is the World” explores what it means to say theirs wasn’t the only story.

“The Field is the World”: Williams, Hawai’i, and Material Histories in the Making continues at Williams College Museum of Art (15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Suite 2, Williamstown, Massachusetts) through January 2, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Sonnet Kekilia Coggins and Kailani Polzak.

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