Franklyn Donahue looks at the gleaming wood of the 18th-century tall clock in the newly reinstalled gallery of American art. He has been winding the timekeeper every five days since 1981. “If you don’t, the weights hit the ground and the clock stops,” he explains. “If you don’t keep it running it will stop altogether, because the oil dries up. [Clock donor] Mrs. McCrae’s brother is a clocksmith, so when it does break, he comes to fix it. People don’t have clocks anymore.”
Franklyn has that kind of intimacy with thousands of works of art—he has been at the museum since 1975, with 34 of those years spent as the person in charge of art maintenance. He has a BA in art history, and also studied printmaking, drawing and painting at the University of Hawai‘i, and started his working life as a printing press technician. A fateful day at a job fair led to his long connection to the museum.
Friday is Franklyn’s last day at the museum, as he retires and redirects his skills to his home in Wai‘anae. With him goes a lot of institutional memory, great stories, and a trademark dry wit. We sat down with him to talk about the changes he has seen over almost four decades.
How did you come to join the museum?
When I was working as a printer I met Patrick Valencia who had worked in the museum’s Lending Collection. He’s the one who started me thinking there were jobs here. When I was in high school I used to come here. And I came here during college. But I never realized there were jobs here, or if there were, what kind they would be. So one day I came here and was going to apply, but I went to the Victoria Street gate. I got halfway down the driveway and decided I didn’t want to apply for a job—there was an I-beam sticking out the door with a little hoist on it. At the time I was also working part-time cleaning up the meat department at Holiday Mart, and they had the same thing there. That museum side entrance made me think of the meat department, which I was trying to get away from. But I did enjoy it because of the meat—the big chunks of fat, the bones, it was perfect for my drawing class.
During an economic slump, I was laid off from my printing job in 1975. I went to the Blaisdell for a job fair and Robert Van der Wege, the museum’s curator of extension services, was taking applications for a traveling exhibitions assistant. I had lost interest in printing. A grant funded my position for three and a half months and they decided to keep me. I started on St. Patrick’s Day.
What did you do as part of extension services?
We used to send print exhibitions to neighbor islands—that was my job, to mount and frame prints and put them in readymade slotted crates. I had 320 prints at one time and there were 21 prints in an exhibition, so I had 15 or 16 exhibitions of works on paper. Shipping was dirt cheap then, and state libraries had funding and there were small art groups all around the islands. They called the museum to borrow an exhibition for six weeks, and I’d get it together. I was laid off when the extension services department lost its funding in 1979. Times change, all the things that make a program work can stop. When we started the department, shipping and airfare were cheap. Then they became expensive, no one wanted to borrow anything anymore.
So how did you get into art maintenance?
I was rehired as a security officer—for two months I was the assistant chief of security. Then [director] Jim Foster asked me if I was interested in conservation. At that time the Pacific Conservation Center was operating at Bishop Museum, and he offered me training in conservation to care for the museum’s outdoor sculpture, works on paper, and storage. The Conservation Center trained me in all those areas. They had multiple seminars over the years.
What does art maintenance entail on a daily basis?
There are several areas—monitoring humidity and temperature in the galleries, outdoor sculptures, gallery and storage cleaning, moving objects in and out of storage, pick ups and returns of loans and donations.
If you clean something you really get to know it, you have to look at it carefully, it becomes very familiar to you. I’ve more less had to clean everything, and I know them all because I’ve cleaned them many times.
I check them for deterioration, bug activity. When I first started nothing was air conditioned, so termites had infested all the floors, and they were crawling up the furniture, into the artwork. This place was a mess. They had cases in the courtyards and they were filthy, everything needed to be cleaned when I started. Also, before, everything had different equipment, keys, cases—nothing was standard. Part of my job is to open the cases, remove debris, and keep them clean. That was a complicated task because every display case had a different opening mechanism. Everything is a lot more standardized now.
As a young man working in printing, did you ever think you would be at a museum for 38 years?
I didn’t know what else to do with an art degree. I like art, I liked studying art processes and artists and seeing new things all the time. The whole art field is huge. There are so many different media and types of art—it’s always new. But I didn’t have the personality for making and showing art. Taking care of it seemed like the best alternative.
My grandfather worked for Prudential as an accountant. He started at 18 and retired at 72. He was my inspiration for career longevity. Of course Mrs. Hall [assistant to the director Aletheia Hall] was too. She started working here the year I was born and she was here until 2002.
You live in Wai‘anae—how long have you been commuting?
I moved to Wai‘anae in 1988 with my wife and six-year-old son. I took the 93 Express, which worked well. The Bus is so convenient, it’s so perfect. It’s just that since 1988 it’s also gotten so crowded. It takes longer than it used to. I catch the bus at 5am, I get home at 6pm. That’s one of the reasons to retire.
What have been the biggest changes in the museum during that time?
Air conditioning—everything is climate controlled. It was much more quaint—the guards were dressed in white, it was open air and much smaller. Membership used to be in the hallway where the American Indian cases are now, and it led to a garden. The galleries behind the Kinau Courtyard stage were the administrative offices. Luce courtyard was a parking lot. Everything went out to a garden, that’s how the museum was designed.
What does the museum mean to you?
It’s home. I do the same things at home that I do here. What I’ve learned to do here I do everywhere, all my activities I’ve developed here are all home-based—everything you do here is what you would do to take care of a home.