The Honolulu Museum of Art is almost 100 years old, or in other words, quite a bit of history has gone down in these galleries. With artwork spanning all eras and across the world, the walls of this museum are brimming with rich history. With that comes a few accounts that HoMA is haunted. While possibly just folklore, these stories have been passed on from employee to employee, which is how the ones below were collected. So take these stories with a grain of salt (and then place it in the four corners of the room you’re in)!
Turn on some lights, grab some sage and read ahead:
Anna Rice Cooke’s wheelchair
When the museum originally opened in 1927, Anna Rice Cooke, the founder of the museum, sat at the entrance to her newly opened establishment in her custom wicker wheelchair welcoming all the patrons visiting her collection. After Mrs. Cooke’s passing there was an exhibition dedicated to her legacy and within the exhibition were some of her favorite items, including her bed, favorite jewelry and even her wicker wheelchair she spent so much time in. The exhibition was in the gallery for decades before being reinstalled with a more traditional art show. All of Mrs. Cooke’s belongings were brought down to the vaults for safe keeping. The next day a security guard was opening the galleries for the day just as the sun was rising. As he was making his rounds, he found the wicker wheelchair in one of the galleries facing a beautiful oil painting. The guard, taken aback at the sight of the chair, carefully took it back down to the vaults. To no avail, he asked around his department to see which wiseguy was trying to play a prank on him. The next morning the early shift guard once again made his rounds when he found the wheelchair in one of the courtyards enjoying the view. The guard, annoyed at this point, took the wheelchair back to the vaults in a huff. He interrogated his fellow guards to see who thought it was so funny to try and spook him but he had no luck. The third day, the morning guard made his rounds to find the wheelchair in another gallery facing a large stone sculpture. Furious at the sight of the chair, the guard rushed it back down to the vaults and with a sturdy rope tied it down to the nearest storage rack with a complicated knot. The fourth day, the morning guard made his rounds to open the museum. He checked through all of the galleries and all of the courtyards without even a glimpse of Mrs. Cooke’s wheelchair. The guard let his curiosity get the best of him and traveled down to the vaults to make sure the chair was still in place. As he opened the door he was shocked to see the wheelchair vanished without a trace—only the rope with the complicated knot completely undone left in its place. Mrs. Cooke’s wheelchair is still missing to this day.
A few decades ago after a new gallery rotation, a bewildered patron came to the front desk to inform them that one of the paintings within the new exhibition may not be hung properly as it was shifting on the wall. The alarmed museum employee notified the installations crew of the patron’s comments and they quickly rushed up to fix the painting. The installers pulled the painting from the wall and checked to make sure that everything was secure before rehanging the piece. When they step back to check their work they saw that the painting was still shaking on the wall, making a soft reverberating sound. The puzzled installers tried pulling it down again and exchanged it with another piece within the exhibition. As they looked at the freshly hung piece now on the opposite side of the gallery, they saw it was still trembling, buzzing on its hook. The frustrated installers rotated the vibrating painting back down into the vaults to trade it out with a different piece. The befuddled installers passed the story around to their various coworkers and they all made their way down to the vault to see the spectacle. As they turn on the lights within the vault they hear an audible racket being made at the back of the room. As they approached, they found the painting vibrating rhythmically on the wall of the vault. The workers, astonished by the phenomenon, decided that it is best if they de-accession the piece. So they sold it off.
When I first started my job at the museum, every morning I would take time out of my day to walk through the galleries and familiarize myself with the collection. As I made my rounds, I always found myself feeling hesitant in the Arts of the Philippines Gallery. When I walked through those doors I was hit with an intense pressure that would never cease to surprise me. My blood ran cold, my hair stood on end and I always felt like I wasn’t alone. As my time with the museum continued, I was talking story with one of our long-time volunteers, a local Hawaiian woman who was everybody’s Tutu. Tutu was very spiritual and understood that the island never forgets who was once there. We began talking about our favorite pieces in the collection when she revealed to me that she had a soft spot for all of the galleries except for one. Tutu explained that when she would ride the elevator up to the second floor she could not force herself to step out and to the left into the Arts of The Philippines Gallery.“Something is there. Something not so nice. Something with a lot of pain,” Tutu said to me. I was shocked to hear her say those words. Her gleeful demeanor turned stoic. All the joy left her face. Tutu’s words fueled my curiosity. I felt justified in exploring the gallery further. Every morning I would spend a few extra minutes trying to pinpoint where this spirit presided. As I poked and prodded around the gallery I found myself face to face with a pale ghostly bust of an androgynous figure with piercing eyes that I could feel looking back at me. The bust remained still but I knew there was something inside.
As time went on, I found myself at the box office to the theater selling tickets for the opening night of the Filipino Film Festival. The featured film was the debut for a director straight from the Philippines. Hype was high and so were ticket sales. As I dealt with the line forming out the door and around the corner, I was greeted by an older Filipina woman, late 60s, decked out in her finest pink muumuu. The woman was extremely friendly, ordering her ticket with a great smile adorning her face. As I worked to complete her transaction she kept looking out the door at the museum.
She looked at me and said, “Oh, I know. I just felt something. Something over there.” She raised her hand and pointed her finger right at the Arts of the Philippines Gallery.