This past October, museum director Stephan Jost appointed Paul Carry as Lead Interpretive Guide at Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, which is owned by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. (The Honolulu Museum of Art administers the center’s tour program.) With 12 years as a Shangri La guide already under his belt, Paul has an extensive knowledge of Islamic art—as well as everything else at the 1937 estate built by Doris Duke.
On a sunny March day, he points to the walking irises in Shangri La’s Central Courtyard and tells his tour “it’s the second best bloom” he has ever seen. And from the flowers to the golden shower tree, to the lived-in quality of the rooms, it’s clear that Shangri La is as much a living space today as it is a museum and memorial to Doris Duke and her collection of Islamic art. In the dimly sunlit foyer, Paul explains the four main elements of Islamic art: calligraphy, geometry, arabesque, and human figures.
Prior to joining Shangri La as a volunteer (the result of a friendship with Shangri La executive director Deborah Pope—they both swam at the Windward YMCA), Paul was a physician. “I had absolutely no background in art of any kind much less Islamic art history…but did spend much of my career teaching,” says Paul. He moved to Hawai‘i 28 years ago, after growing up in Chicago, attending medical school in Colorado, and doing postgraduate work in Arizona.
Engaging, interactive, hands-on, Paul reels in his listeners. He leads our eyes down the length of the living room with a gesture. “She was a visionary,” he says about Doris Duke, eliciting an echo from an awestruck man in an aloha shirt and striped track shorts who murmurs, “She was a visionary.” Every question on the tour is a “great question,” and Paul’s answers often lead to more as they pique our curiosity. He’s full of inside details, ranging from the typical height of interior doorways to the Duke family tree–helpful when members of extended family arrives to join an afternoon tour (as happened while I was there).
After working at Shangri La almost since it opened to the public in 2002, Paul has “plenty of interesting stories” to tell.
“On one tour a few years ago I had two gentlemen from Istanbul, Turkey, on my tour. One of them spoke fluent English and the other did not, but understood much of what was being shared. They were both very much into the arts as a hobby. I encouraged them to contribute whenever they liked. By the end of the tour they were fully engaged with the other guests as well as with me. Then after reviewing some of Doris Duke’s Turkish ceramic pieces, one of the other guests asked them if after seeing all of these beautiful pieces at Shangri La, did they feel they should be back in Turkey? They looked at each other and quickly said ‘No!’ and then went on to relate this story: in the year before their visit to Shangri La, Turkey had repatriated a number of historical pieces of art or artifacts and installed them in various museums in Turkey. Then within six months, they were all stolen!”
Outside on the lanai, Paul dons sunglasses—during mid-day tours the sunlight reflects in blinding white off the plaster walls and marble around the pool. (It’s Vermont marble, he adds.) Stopping for a water break, the tour group disperses across the lawn, taking snapshots of Diamond Head and a lone surfer at Cromwell’s.
When he isn’t showing the grounds to everyday visitors, Paul leads media and VIP tours, as well as foreign dignitaries, such as the Moroccan delegation.
Paul’s present duties also include observing and reporting, so that he can evaluate the guides and communicate changes on the site—working with conservators and visiting scholars.
Tours are constantly evolving—toward the end of this session, in the Damascus Room, Paul incorporates information he learned from Dr. Anke Scharrahs, a recent visiting scholar and expert on Damascene interiors. During her stay, Scharrahs revealed her innovative techniques in removing lacquers from interior wall paintings, evidenced in two small square examples that now pop in their original bright pigments.
Shining his flashlight at these small patches of wonder, Paul explains, “You get a little window into the past–me too.”