Tucked away in the corner of the basement of the Art School is the Lending Collection, which houses more than 13,000 works of art and material culture from around the world that Hawai‘i teachers can use for free. With its crowded shelves and aisles that stretch a quarter of length of the building, one can’t help but recall the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark—you know, the one where they put the ark away in that enormous secret warehouse? “We have top men working on it right now,” “Who?” “Top…Men.”

We too have top people working on our lending collection. On September 21 Dawn Sueoka joined the museum as our new lending collection coordinator and archivist (as if burying her in thousands of lending collection artifacts wasn’t enough, so we decided to pile the thousands of records in our archives on top, but it’s a burden she bears with cheer).

After graduating with a degree in library science from the University of Hawai‘i, Dawn got her MFA from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and then spent a year in the Michigan library system before returning to Honolulu to work at our sister institution Shangri La in 2009—first as a consultant, then as a full-time archivist. We wanted to get to know our newest recruit a little better, so we readied our torches and delved into the labyrinth underneath the Art School known as the lending collection to ask her a few questions.

What’s the better institution to work for: Shangri La or HoMA?
Wow, no beating around the bush, huh? The two institutions are so different. I certainly miss working at Shangri La, and I miss a lot of my colleagues there, but I’m really happy to be here. Also, Shangri La and HoMA have such a close working relationship that, in a lot of ways, it still feels like I’m a part of the same family.

Nice dodge! Two weeks in, how are you adjusting to the new position? Is there a big difference between doing archival work at Shangri La and HoMA?
HoMA is a much larger institution, with a much larger staff, and I think the archives reflect that. While I’ve been spending time getting my bearings and learning the lay of the land already three exhibitions have opened at the museum—the Art School gallery is changing over, the Mezzanine Gallery is changing over, and the Nanogallery has something new. It’s been a good opportunity to just dive in and go with the flow because so much is always happening. It’s also a busy time for the lending collection because we’re getting close to fall break, so a lot of teachers have more time to come in and request artifacts from the collection. My first few weeks haven’t just been getting my feet wet; I’ve really gotten to dive in, which has been great.

What are your first impressions of the lending collection?
I’m looking forward to learning more about it, and how teachers use it in their classrooms. It’s really exciting to be able to touch the art. There’s so much information you can get from how heavy something is, or how cold it is, or how soft it is. It’s a real different way for me to experience art. I really like that. Now I’m looking forward to getting the word out about the collection and encouraging those types of encounters.

When you’re not in the lending collection or in an archive, what do you like to do?
I really enjoy poetry writing. I got an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University, and that’s probably the main thing that I occupy myself with outside of work. I find that creative writing feeds my professional work and vice-versa. A lot of the poets that I really admire have been really immersed in the art world, and have collaborated really extensively with artists. There was this sense that the boundary between disciplines was a little more fluid, which I find energizing.

One of the things I enjoy so much about working here is that so much of the staff are artists. Feeling that energy within the first couple of weeks has been really inspiring.

Has anything about the lending collection surprised you?
I’m still finding my way around; I’ve gotten lost in the basement multiple times. One of the things that I appreciate about a lot of the objects in the lending collection is that so many of them are not what they seem. Yesterday I was going through the aisles and there was this huge pair of scissors from Korea. They looked so unwieldy as scissors, but then I looked them up in the database and found that they’re actually noise-makers.

Another object from Yap, which appears to be a carved sculpture of a duck, is actually a vessel for holding paint. I really like when things are not what they seem. It’s a good reminder to spend time with something, and to not make assumptions, because these objects have so much more that they can reveal to us.

The noisemaker from Korea

The noise-maker from Korea

What’s your favorite part of the job so far?
With the archives, I’m enjoying learning about the history of the institution through the different types of archives. The institutional and organizational changes that HoMA has gone through over the years are reflected in the overlaps in the different types of records between the various departments. To a large extent, those things aren’t super cut-and-dry because departments merge, and staff move around. On one hand that’s a bit vexing and maddening to somebody who is trying to organize it all, but on the other hand it’s kind of great, because it reflects the way that we move through the world and think about our jobs, and the way that an organization grows and changes over the years.

With regards to my work with lending collection, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a lot of teachers—from the Art School, DOE, and private schools. It’s really nice hearing them talk about how they’re going to be using the artifacts in their classrooms, and I’ve enjoyed starting to think about the objects in the collection as not necessarily static representations of a particular culture that’s fixed in time, but more like living things that exist on a continuum where they are continuing to inspire people who interact with them.

Teachers: Learn more about how you use the Lending Collection as a resource for your class here.