This fall, Williams College joins a growing number of colleges and universities—Princeton, Yale, Washington and Lee, and Georgetown—in confronting its complex role in history. The liberal arts college in western Massachusetts is delving into a perhaps unexpected issue: its complicated, centuries-long relationship with the people of Hawaiʻi—including the role of Williams alumni in converting native Hawaiians to Christianity, in developing a written Hawaiian language, founding the Hawaiian plantation economy, and later overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy, which was replaced by a republic first led by a Williams alumnus, Sanford B. Dole.
The Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA) new exhibition The Field is the World: Williams, Hawaiʻi, and Material Histories in the Making, on view from September 1, 2018 through January 2, 2019, brings to light this history through archival materials and through objects once belonging to the Lyceum of Natural History, a student-run museum on Williams’ campus from 1835–1908. The Lyceum built its collection through international expeditions, gifts from missionaries, and correspondence with institutions such as the Smithsonian. Yet it is important to remember that its ambitions were inextricably tied to European and American constructions of natural history that dismissed both the complexity and sovereignty of indigenous peoples around the world.
“Drawing on campus collections in the college archives, the biology department, and WCMA, The Field is the World poses questions about the lives of objects, about where they come to rest, and why. It’s also a meditation on the collecting and display strategies that use material objects to render some histories visible, and others invisible,” said WCMA exhibition co-curator and Interim Deputy Director Sonnet Kekilia Coggins, who adds that efforts are underway to make rare Hawaiian language texts found in the school’s archives accessible to scholars, cultural practitioners, and the public.
Among the archival objects on view in the WCMA exhibition is a Hawaiian kupeʻe niho ilio, an ankle adornment made of dog teeth. This object serves as a starting point in a conversation that leads visitors from the story of the Lyceum to a case study investigating the impact of the generations of Williams missionaries and their descendants who went to and came from Hawaiʻi in the nineteenth century. Today, traces of these histories at Williams are found on campus within Mission Park dormitory, where the entries are named for missionaries, and in the Haystack Monument, which commemorates the beginning of the American Protestant missionary movement.
“The story of Williams students in Hawaiʻi is complex and ongoing,” said Kailani Polzak, exhibition co-curator and assistant professor of art. “Our aim for this exhibition is to present these materials as a means of taking stock, not only of objects, but also of histories and of ourselves. In bringing together multiple voices and local collections, we hope to draw attention to a past that is unfamiliar to many at Williams and to encourage further conversations about our histories.”
The Field is the World is co-curated by Interim Deputy Director Sonnet Coggins and Assistant Professor of Art Kailani Polzak with research assistance and content development by Nālamakū Ahsing ’21, and research assistance by Thomas Price MA ’17. Exhibition design by David Gürçay-Morris, Associate Professor of Theatre.
Exhibition-related Public Programs
Making Material Histories
Together with visiting scholars, we think about material artifacts as both objects and subjects of histories, and consider how methods of collecting and display impact what narratives are formed.
Science, Religion, and Nineteenth-Century Hawaiian Collections
Stacy Kamehiro, associate professor and Rowland and Patricia Rebele Endowed Chair in the History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz
Thursday, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.
Presented in partnership with the Williams College art department.
Curating the Kalākaua Era in the Twenty-First Century
Healoha Johnston, interim director of curatorial affairs, curator of the arts of Hawaiʻi, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas
Wednesday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m.
A Close Look at Nineteenth-Century Hawaiian Language Texts in the Williams Archives
Jeffrey Kapali Lyon, associate professor of religion, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m.
Grappling with Our Histories
These conversations bring together students, faculty, and staff to reckon with the histories surfaced in the exhibition.
Thursday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m.