This is my last blog post. After six wonderful years at the museum, I’m off to new adventures in the Southwest. That’s me in the picture above, which was taken back when I was a bright-eyed box office attendant in the Doris Duke Theatre in early 2014.
One of the things I’m going to miss is seeing visitors’ reactions to Henry Bertoia’s Sounding Sculpture—the only piece on view that guests are encouraged to touch. When I see other people in the Modernism Gallery, I like to drag my hand across the piece, sending its vertical rods clanging together, and watch the people jump and look around wildly, as if expecting to see some art god’s thunderbolt come down to smite me.
But what I will miss even more is watching the slow but sure erasure of the Bertoia’s wall label, caused by people who take its instructions too literally—thinking “Please touch gently for sounding” refers to the actual text on the wall. I can’t look at the label without smiling. At the time of writing, the final letter “G” is almost illegible. Who are these people??
I’ve noticed a lot of quirks and nuances like this in my time here, and so for my last post, I’d like to indulge myself by paying respects to a few of my favorites.
• In my first-ever post, a “staff pick” with Kim Hutchison—who was then a Visitor Information Center receptionist and is now the manager of Visitor Services—she pointed out the shadow play created by the iron screens that overlook Kīna‘u Courtyard. She showed me a way to look beyond the works on the gallery walls, to see how the museum’s indoor and outdoor spaces play off of each other.
With that kind of outlook, I discovered a daily phenomenon in the Portraiture Gallery. Every afternoon, Alice Neel’s painting of Marisol Escobar duplicates itself outside of the gallery on a wall of the Mediterranean Courtyard. The illusion, created by the adjacent window, always reminds me of Disneyland’s old Haunted Mansion ride—the part when a ghost appears to sit next to you in a trick mirror. What’s more, the illusion befits Escobar, an artist who worked extensively with mimesis.
• Aside from the museum’s many works of art made of wood, few pieces in HoMA’s collection derive from once-living things. But then there are the two pieces made from sperm whale teeth, mounted almost side-by-side in the Art of the Pacific Gallery. One is a lei niho palaoa from Hawai‘i, for which the carved tooth would have been harvested from a dead, beached whale or long-decayed skeleton. Early Hawaiians didn’t kill whales. The other piece is a ceremonial Fijian necklace featuring a whale tooth that was etched by a whaler. What visitors can’t see is the whale ship flying an American flag on the back of the tooth. As a big nerd for whaling history, I can’t help but trace the implications of this detail. Not only did the tooth spend the first half of the 19th century cruising the dark depths of the ocean inside of a giant mammal, it was then likely hauled up onto a bloody whaling ship–probably from New Bedford or Nantucket—and then taken as a scrimshaw souvenir to Fiji by an American whaler, who probably spent time at Lāhainā or Honolulu, the hubs for America’s whalers. The relatively fragile piece then managed to enter a collector’s possession, and finally landed here in Honolulu, to be tucked in the corner of a climate-controlled gallery.
• People often talk about museums as living spaces. Sometime’s that’s a bit too true at HoMA. Although the operations team works diligently to keep animals at bay that pose threats to the buildings and works of art, they can be persistent buggers—and I will miss their company. There are carpenter bees in the rafters around Kīna‘u Courtyard, giant banana moths in the stairwells, brown anoles around Central Courtyard, cats on the roof, manu-o-Kū in the mango tree (for now), and probably, in spite of our best efforts, some kind of boring bugs hiding in our Renaissance masterpieces. I am sorry, but I sort of love it when nature comes in and foils our anthropocentric pretenses for isolationism (say that three times fast!).
• The museum has a system of basement tunnels, and I still get lost in them all the time. But it’s OK because sometimes when I am lost, I find things like this bag of arms. I haven’t asked anyone what it is for, because I like not knowing.
• Last but not least, there are all the little personality quirks found in the individuals I have had the pleasure of working with here. The super talented, weird, and wonderful people who flock to HoMA make it the kind of workplace I will forever strive to find again.
I have been #blessed to work side by side with the museum’s digital media associate (a.k.a. social media rock-star-guru) Scott Whelden (Wheldon?) for more than two years. It’s no secret that he has an awesome sense of humor and commitment to spreading the word about all the museum’s happenings in entertaining and engaging ways. Less known is his commitment to telling stories in foreign accents, all of which inevitably shift into a Jamaican accent. Amazingly, to my knowledge, he hasn’t even been to Jamaica! Go figure. (Behind the scenes bonus scoop: Scott and I created a MySpace page for the museum last year. I think there are still some open spots in HoMA’s top eight…)
Then there’s my supervisor, director of communications Lesa Griffith. She sets a high bar with her stalwart work ethic, unshakable commitment to New York Times-level excellence, and keen radar for sensing bullshit wherever it lurks. She also has a great sense of humor—though it doesn’t always line up with one’s expectations. Tell her a funny story and you might get more laughs during the delivery than at the punch line. Needless to say, she has kept me on my toes—while thickening my skin and honing my eye for detail.
I will miss all of this and much, much more. Thanks for reading.
Editor’s note: A look back at Travis on the blog.
• That time he was part of an April Fool’s post: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/museum-hires-samuel-gelfy-as-curator-of-millennial-culture/
• Travis on curating the HI Sk8 Films showcase: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/travis-hancock-on-the-hi-sk8-films-showcase/
• Travis created the museum’s first audio tour on its app: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/homa-offers-first-audio-tour-through-its-app/
• Travis launched the museum’s first app: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/the-museum-is-now-part-of-the-tessitura-network-find-out-how-the-change-affects-you/
• He dug into the changes in the Spalding House garden: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/volunteers-uncover-mysteries-in-spalding-houses-rock-garden/
• He coaxed Pearl Harbor memories from museum volunteers: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/homa-volunteers-share-their-75-year-old-pearl-harbor-memories/
• He had a great interview with photographer Chris Jordan: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/the-grief-ritual-photographer-chris-jordan-on-his-midway-project-and-the-amazingness-of-albatrosses/
• He found out what a conservation technician does: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/susan-thomas-conservator-framer-and-humidity-expert/