The Honolulu Museum of Art Lending Collection houses thousands of objects from around the world that Hawai‘i educators can borrow for free to use in classrooms across the islands. Among the most requested objects are those from Micronesia—about a third of loans to Department of Education schools—yet the museum knew relatively little about them. For example, the label for a woven mat would say it was from the Marshall Island and that is was a… “woven straw mat.” With Marshallese works going to schools on O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island, Lending Collection Manager Dawn Sueoka felt the museum had a responsibility to find out more about them.

To better support educators and students, Sueoka reached out to Dr. Mary Therese Perez Hattori, then Director of Chaminade’s Center for Teaching and Learning and currently a Scholarship Specialist in the Education Program of East-West Center, and Marshallese educator Wilbert Alik. Alik wrote new descriptions, in Marshallese and English, for the collection’s Marshallese objects. To increase access to these newly identified artifacts, from belts to stick charts,  Sueoka and Alik had a minisite created featuring an online exhibition of the Bwinnin Ri-M̗ajel̗ / Marshallese collection.

The project builds on the museum’s ongoing outreach to the Micronesian community, which has included education programs for students, teacher training workshops and a Micronesian Festival. The Lending Collection recently received funding from the Hawai‘i Foundation on Culture and the Arts to expand the project and highlight objects from other collections, with a focus on Hawai‘i, the Philippines and additional regions of Micronesia.

Wilbert Alik visiting the Eben Ice Caves in Michigan, where he is studying anthropology.

Wilbert Alik visiting the Eben Ice Caves in Michigan, where he is studying anthropology.

Alik was born in Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). A member of the M̗ōkauleej clan,  he graduated from the College of the Marshall Islands where he later joined the faculty as the founding Chair of the Marshallese Studies program. He worked for the Public School System (PSS) in the RMI as the Marshallese Language Arts (MLA) curriculum specialist. Currently he is studying anthropology at Northern Michigan University. He took the time to answer questions about working on the HoMA Lending Collection project and what it means for Marshallese in Hawai‘i.

Can you describe your overall approach/steps to researching these objects and writing the descriptions?
Most of the items are familiar through experience. However, for detailed explanation, I sometimes consulted papers written by anthropologists.

Was there a particular object that you especially liked or were intrigued by and why?
Yes, I very much liked the stick charts because of the ingenuity behind them. Stick charts were tools made before maps, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and Google Maps. And yet, the stick charts demonstrate a pretty awesome understanding of physics and the natural world!

What is something you hope people will learn as a result of your work on this project?
Pacific cultures originated at one point but slowly dispersed across the Pacific over time. Beyond the artifacts and the descriptions of each item themselves, there is a sense of oneness, unity and creativity. There is a literacy our ancestors had reading the stick charts, mats and necklaces. That is getting lost. The ingenuity required in the preparation of the materials and processes deserves our respect and understanding. These materials reflect Marshallese cultural values and norms. That is what I am hopeful people will learn about Marshallese culture: that it is rich, including the people. I hope that they will appreciate the hard work early life required and the ingenuity demonstrated in the processes and natural materials used to produce the materials.

What do you hope Marshallese students in Hawai’i’s schools might take away from this?
This is an opportunity for the Marshallese who lack the experience of their own material culture to learn about it. All they need to do is to appreciate the materials and realize that the materials are them. They are the materials. They need the connection. With climate change and rising sea-level, the items will serve as a hope for a better future. The artifacts will serve as a reminder of their ancestors. All of which the Marshallese students will need in order to begin openly discussing climate change and sea-level rise, its impacts, and any actionable decisions going forward.