Though a large chair, it doesn’t look all that comfortable. That’s possibly because the woven chair, though possessing a wide and high back, had a rather narrow sitting surface. More likely, it’s due to its lack of a comfortable seat cushion.
In any case, on Saturday, Dec. 3, my girlfriend and I made a visit to Hale Ho‘ike‘ike (formerly known as the Bailey House Museum) in Wailuku, where I found the old, brown, woven peacock chair pushed against the wall up on the top floor. I stared at the chair a while, not because I was imagining how uncomfortable it would be to actually sit in it, but because there was something about its information label that didn’t seem right.
“Peacock Chair,” read the printed card placed on the seat. “Brought to Hawaii by General John Schofield aboard a transport circa 1916.”
As far as American military figures are concerned, there are few more recognizable names than John Schofield. A sprawling U.S. Army base on Oahu bears his name, which was made famous in the book and movie versions of From Here to Eternity. I also knew that Schofield had once commanded the Army of the Pacific, and had been stationed in Hawaii. Not wanting to give up, I photographed the chair’s label and moved on to the rest of the museum.
The chair gnawed at me on the drive home. Once inside, I got on my computer and searched for information about Schofield. The answer hit me in the face almost from the get-go.
John Schofield died in 1906.
Of course. Schofield had been sent to Hawaii–in 1873 (his report even recommended that the U.S. establish a port at Pearl Harbor). It would have been impossible for Schofield to bring the chair to Hawaii in 1916.
For three days, I debated what to do with this small but somewhat significant revelation. On the one hand, the museum seemed to be giving out bad information. On the other hand, I wasn’t a historian and didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all mansplainer.
Finally, on Dec. 6, I gave in and emailed the Maui Historical Society (MHS), which runs Hale Ho‘ike‘ike. I told them that while I’d had a great time at the museum, I did notice that the Peacock Chair on the top floor seemed to have a problematic description, in that apparently Schofield had died a decade before he supposedly brought the chair to Hawaii. Two days later, MHS archivist Marianne Klaus emailed me a response.
“Our records state exactly what is written on the object label,” she wrote. “The only information that is not included on the label is that the chair was made at Bilibid Prison in the Philippines.”
This didn’t seem promising at all. But she also wasn’t done.
“Many thanks to you for pointing out that General John Schofield died in 1906,” Klaus wrote. Since that is the case, the information we have is wrong, the chair was definitely not brought to Hawaii by him, or it was brought by him but before 1906. The chair was given to the Maui Historical Society in 1958 and it has been on exhibit for a long time. I doubt we will be able to find out what really happened with that chair, but we will remove the label.”
I was elated. I’d done the right thing, and a small mistake was being corrected. But then I got to thinking–it wasn’t being corrected, just deleted. In fact, museum officials never seemed to have known anything about the chair, except that it was very old and came from a Philippine prison that dated to Spanish colonial days.
Not sure what to do, I called up the image of the chair’s original label that I’d photographed. It was then that I realized that I’d completely missed the point of the chair.
The idea of the museum is ancient–the first known such museum opened about 2,300 years ago in Alexandria, Egypt, according to the late Emmanuel Arinze, who was president of the Commonwealth Association of Museums. They are, to put it simply, vital to health and maintenance of civilization.
“The traditional role of museums is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment,” Arinze said in a 1999 lecture at National Museum in Georgetown, Guyana. “The museum as an institution tells the story of man the world over and how humanity has survived in its environment over the years. It houses things created by nature and by man and in our modern society it houses the cultural soul of the nation. It holds the cultural wealth of the nation in trust for all generations and by its function and unique position, it has become the cultural conscience of the nation.”
Nationwide, there are more than 800 million visits to museums each year, according to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). According to the organization, these museums “preserve and protect more than a billion objects.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance museums play in culture–especially to young people.
“Students who attend a field trip to an art museum experience an increase in critical thinking skills, historical empathy and tolerance,” states the AAM. “For students from rural or high-poverty regions, the increase was even more significant.”
Here on Maui, Hale Ho‘ike‘ike is the home of the Maui Historical Society. Formed in the 1950s by the Maui Women’s Club, the society began leasing the Bailey House–the old Wailuku Female Seminary, which missionary teacher Edward Bailey had run in the early 19th century–in 1957 from the Wailuku Sugar Company for a buck a year. In 1991, Wailuku Sugar sold the house to Masaru “Pundy” Yokouchi, who proceeded to give the structure to the Maui Historical Society.
Today, the Historical Society holds some 10,000 artifacts and 8,000 photographs (not all are on display, obviously) that range from pre-European contact Hawaii to the missionary era, the overthrow of the monarchy and Hawaii territorial times. Balancing those times is a delicate process, to say the least.
Interestingly enough, the AAM also insists that “Museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers or even personal accounts by relatives.” This must be because history found in a book is an abstraction, while the actual sword carried by King Kalakaua is a tangible, touchable piece of reality.
Of course, as I found out, the museum archivists and officials are people, and people can make mistakes on the informational labels and cards placed on exhibits–mistakes that can go uncorrected for years. But sometimes, even those errors can be instructive.
In the end, the mislabeled chair still had a great deal to teach me. Not about Schofield, but about the person who’d donated the chair to the museum in the first place. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the chair is a link back to a tremendously important time in Hawaii history.
According to the Peacock Chair information card, the chair was donated to the museum by Mrs. Frances C. Wood, who is identified as the “Granddaughter of Dr. John S. McGrew.” At first, the names meant nothing to me, so I did what all museums hope their visitors will do–I looked them up.
Today, we’d call Frances Cooper Wood a child of extraordinary privilege. Born in 1904, in Hawaii in the earliest years of the 20th century, she met Lucius Pinkham–”Uncle Pink” to her–when she was a small child (he was Hawaii Territorial Governor from 1913 to 1918). During her childhood, it was common for diplomats, generals and other powerful world leaders to visit her home for parties and social gatherings–President Warren Harding even asked her father if he’d like to be governor of Hawaii (he said no).
“So it was fun living in the heyday of the islands,” Wood recalled in an oral history she recorded for the Watumull Foundation Oral History Project in 1980. “Every boat would bring people with letters of introduction and then later on, after the Hackfield home had been sold, we moved down to Pearl Harbor to a place my grandparents had and there the family entertained informally and we’d have as many as thirty to sixty people. I mean, we had stacks of china and I could bring home five or eight people just by telephoning a half hour ahead. We would start a party and call up our friends and say, ‘Oh, we’re having a good time. Come on, join us.’ We had Victrola records and whatnot and, ‘course, we had so many navy friends and we would be able to go aquaplaning in Pearl Harbor. And when the British special service squadron was in Honolulu, when Governor [Wallace Rider] Farrington was governor, Mrs. Farrington was away and his daughter, Frances, was then a debutante and rather than have the matrons without their husbands, he had the debutantes. And the H.M.S. Hood and all these ships were there. We had a ball.”
Wood was able to enjoy such access to wealthy and powerful in 20th century colonial Hawaii because of her grandfather, Dr. John Strayer McGrew.
“A name that will stand out prominently in Hawaiian history as long as history endures, is that of Dr. John S. McGrew, famous physician and esteemed citizen of the old Hawaii, whose long activities in promotion of a political union between the islands and the United States won him the title of ‘The Father of Annexation,’” stated the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1925. “Dr. McGrew is believed to have been the first proponent of the proposition that Hawaii should be American, the first man to realize that under the American flag the islands and their people would find their greatest opportunity and the fullest realization of their destiny.”
Born in Ohio in 1825, McGrew became a medical doctor. During the American Civil War, he worked as an army surgeon and served on the staffs of Generals George McClellan, William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. After the war, he and his family moved to Hawaii, where he became a fervent advocate of deposing the indigenous Hawaiian kingdom and making the islands U.S. territory. In today’s terms, we’d consider him an advocate of insurrection and rebellion.
“Immediately after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, Dr. McGrew was named by the “Annexation Club” as honorary editor of the Hawaiian Star,” the Star-Bulletin reported back in 1925. “Dr. McGrew vigorously advocated the cause of annexation through the columns of the newspaper.”
Given that today’s historians view the overthrown of the Hawaiian monarchy and the subsequent American annexation of Hawaii in far more negative terms (especially for the Hawaiian people, who lost their citizenship in the new, horribly named “Hawaiian Republic”) than those windblown words from the Star-Bulletin 90 years ago, It’s understandable that Hale Ho‘ike‘ike doesn’t have big displays explaining who Wood and McGrew actually were. But that’s fine–I’ve long believed that museums were meant to start conversations about history, not end them.
Klaus is right–we’ll probably never know how peacock chair up on the top floor of the Wailuku museum actually got to Hawaii. But that doesn’t diminish its role as a signpost pointing to some of the powerful individuals who shaped Hawaii’s destructive colonial past.