Martin “Mac” McMorrow became a Honolulu Museum of Art docent in 2004, but his memories of the museum go back much further than that.
“After the war, we lived in Kapahulu and my third grade Thomas Jefferson Elementary School class came to the museum, and I think we were down where the Education Department used to be to do art,” says the retired sanitary engineer. “We did a big mural on butcher paper of Captain Cook coming to the islands—I’m not sure if we used paint brushes or fingers. And I don’t think it’s in the permanent collection. That was my first introduction to the museum, in 1947.”
With his neatly trimmed mustache and weathered handsomeness, Mac has a Hemingwayesque air about him. He remembers the museum in its pre-climate-controlled-gallery days. “There was no air conditioning. As you entered the Mediterranean Courtyard, you could see Nicolas de Largillière’s painting of the lady with the flowers all around her right through the open doors.”
And as Mac tells it, the museum helped him find his career path. “In my high school days, I took a drawing course here in the mid-50s. That convinced me I needed to go into the sciences instead of the arts,” he laughs.
But his appetite for art was whetted, and later, after serving in the Navy, he found himself working near the museum. “At lunchtime I would walk over and go through the galleries a couple times a week,” he reveals.
The museum has been a part of his life for almost 70 years, and now he shares his knowledge of HoMA and Hawai‘i with museum visitors weekly.
Mac was born on Hawai‘i Island in 1939, where his father was working as a health officer. “At that time people were dying from bubonic plague. I believe he was the first public health engineer to graduate from MIT. It was during the Depression and there was hardly any work, so the best job he got was in Arizona as a county health officer. Then his professor was asked by the Territory of Hawai‘i to recommend someone for rodent control for the plague program on the Big Island and someone for water on Maui. My father always wondered why he wasn’t picked for the water position, because my grandmother ran a boarding house and we treated rats like equals. That’s how I got to the Big Island.”
It’s his personal history that draws him to the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery when he’s asked to point out his favorite work in the collection. While his favorite artists are all in the Volcano School, his favorite work is James Gay Sawkins’s Hilo from the Bay, painted in 1852.
“We lived on the side of Keaukaha, which is in the painting,” explains Mac. “And when the war started, people came to my father and said it was too dangerous living near the ocean and there was going to be an invasion. But my father had been a paper boy in Boston in winter, and my mother had been a nurse in Arizona, so between his winters and her summers, they were happy to be where they were. So they said, ‘No thank you.’ Then it must have been a few days later, a Japanese submarine surfaced and set the piers in Hilo on fire with gunfire. And it went up the coast about a mile from our cottage and the submarine fired at a radio antenna. My father said it sounded like the rounds were going off in the backyard. Well, it wasn’t long after that we were not living on the shore anymore. We moved to Kaumana, in the hills. Both those areas are in the view in this painting, and less than 90 years after it was done, that’s where I was born. That’s why it’s my favorite work in the gallery.”
Curator of education Betsy Robb, who oversees the docent program, took note of Mac’s frequent museum visits. “She said, ‘You’re here so often, you should be a docent,’” he recalls. “So after two years of docent training, I was able to unleash myself on unsuspecting people that walk through the door.”
Mac appreciates the new doors of perception that being a docent has opened for him. “There were things that didn’t interest me, like Renaissance religious paintings. If I went to a big museum, I did not stay long in those galleries. But now I know enough about them that they really intrigue me,” says the grandfather of three. “Because my background is in engineering, things like how a painting is done, and its era and history and what was going on at the time are so interesting. The curators do a fantastic job with the labels. When I finish my afternoon docent tour, I usually go up into one of the galleries that I don’t spend too much time in to read the labels because there’s always a kernel of knowledge that surprises me.”
Aaron Padilla, director of Spalding House, has worked with Mac for years, in his previous positions with the Education Department. “There are two things I love about Mac,” says Padilla. “The first is his thirst for knowledge and love of sharing it. Here at the museum, we might throw around the term ʻlifelong learner’ a lot, but it describes Mac to a T. He’s always asking questions—good and tough ones that I also want to know the answer to. The other is his sharp wit and sense of humor. I enjoy exchanging banter with him because more often than not, it ends in a good laugh. He makes this place fun.”
What keeps Mac motivated to give tours to visitors after all these years? “Like most of the other docents, it’s the idea that you’re constantly learning something, whether on your own or from curators, and having the chance to share what you learn with people that come to visit the museum. They’re generally thankful that there’s someone there to answer questions. It’s nice to think that we’re maybe making a difference.”
Museum staff know with certainty (and gratitude) that what Mac and his fellow docents do makes a difference. Every day they are shaping the visitor experience at the museum.