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Rare Native Hawaiian Temple Image Given a Place of Prominence in PEM’s New Wing

Kūkāʻilimoku​ ​assumed his new position in the skybridge of the Peabody Essex Museum’s new wing, with the help of a delegation of cultural practitioners from Hawai’i.

Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Standing over six feet tall with flared nostrils and mouth agape, this rare and captivating figure was carved by an unknown Hawaiian artist more than two centuries ago. Today, it is exceedingly rare, just one of three known examples to exist in the world.

Kūkā’’ilimoku, who is considered a living god by many Native Hawaiians, is one of the many forms of the god Kū who embodies family, strength, prosperity, and warfare. Large ki’i (temple images) like this one were carved with posts that extended below their feet and placed upright along the heiau (temple) walls. After Kamehameha I’s death in 1819, his son Kamehameha II succeeded him as paramount chief and ended the worship of Kūkā’ilimoku as well as other religious figures, calling for the destruction of heiau. As a result, many ki’i were burned or destroyed. But this work survived.

Kūkā’’ilimoku was recently installed with great care on the skybridge of PEM’s new 40,000-square-foot wing, facing west to Hawai‘i.  Anytime he is moved, a protocol happens. This summer, a delegation of four Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners collaborated closely with PEM staff, and led a protocol of chants and songs, making ho’okupu (ceremonial gifts given as a sign of respect and honor) from Hawai‘i.

Visitors can encounter Kūkā’’ilimoku for themselves when PEM’s new wing opens to the public on September 28.

For more about information about Kūkā’’ilimoku, visit www.pem.org/blog/welcoming-Kūkā’’ilimoku ​​ and plan your visit to #newPEM at pem.org/newpem.