Illustration of needlework showing New England trees on the front and palm trees on the back with a needle and yarn attached.
Illustrations by Anna Godeassi

The story begins in 1986 with a box discovered in the basement of Fayerweather Hall containing objects that once belonged to the Williams Lyceum of Natural History. Or it begins with a student prayer meeting in 1806 that launches the American foreign missionary movement, later commemorated with the Haystack Monument near the aptly named Mission Park residence hall. Or it begins with Williams alumni journeying to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1823 as missionaries, and then their descendants making their way back to the college, stitching together lands and peoples separated by nearly 5,000 miles.

In reality there is no one beginning or even a single story about how Williams and Hawai‘i became linked. Instead, there are multiple stories—histories to be examined and understood. That’s a theme of “‘The Field is the World:’ Williams, Hawai‘i and Material Histories in the Making,” a new exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). Using objects from the Lyceum, archival materials and ambient voices that address the past from different perspectives, the exhibition endeavors to bring to light both the complex and influential relationship between Williams and Hawai‘i as well as how the practices of collecting and display have been used to impose a type of intellectual order on the world.

Just days after “The Field is the World” opened, Williams Magazine convened a conversation with the curators and two contributors to the exhibition. An excerpt of their discussion follows.

Annie Valk: How are Williams and Hawai‘i connected?

Sonnet Kekilia Coggins: 1806 is the Haystack Prayer Meeting and the birthplace of the missionary movement. Then comes the creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. The first mission to Hawai‘i arrives in 1820. The second, in 1823, includes William Richards, Class of 1819. Other alumni join subsequent missions, and many remain in Hawai‘i. Punahou School is established for the missionary children, several of whom come to Williams in the 1860s. About 30 people total—missionaries and their descendants—come and go between Williams and Hawai‘i. A handful of them have deep impacts on the sovereignty of Hawai‘i, the erosion of monarchical power and the creation of the written language. Some participate in drafting constitutions that eventually overthrow Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893.

Nālamakū Ahsing ’21: At a dinner my first year here, it was disclosed to me: “Did you know Sanford B. Dole went to Williams?” It felt like a punch to the gut to know that I was at the school of someone who overthrew Lili‘uokalani and a renowned nation. This exhibition is an intimate experience, one connected to the positionality of power, class, privilege and lived experiences.

Valk: What’s the exhibition about?

Coggins: It looks at what our collections say about who we are and who we want to be. It was born of a discovery of a set of objects and indulged by intense curiosity about the lives and circulation of those objects and what that means about relationships between peoples and places.

Kailani Polzak: And learning the history of the Protestant missionary movement and how it relates to this campus. We have the Haystack Monument and Mission Park dorm, where two entries are named for prominent missionaries and their descendants, among them Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Class of 1862. The histories are written on campus, and yet they’re not read.

Illustration of classic New England church in needlework.Ahsing: I just finished reading Puakea Nogelmeier’s book Mai Pa‘a I Ka Leo: Historical Voice in Hawaiian Primary Materials, Looking Forward and Listening Back. He writes about this rich sea of manuscripts, books and newspapers. Some are written in Hawaiian, some are written by Hawaiians, and some are written by missionaries and people outside of Hawai‘i. Yet within present-day scholarship around Hawai‘i, the amount being used from that repository is one-tenth of 1 percent. Western academia has said that you can look within four to five books, write your thesis, do an analysis and come to conclusions about Hawaiian culture—representations of Hawaiians—that are true and genuine. But the implications of this being one-tenth of 1 percent of the full repository are huge. This exhibition says: “Let’s bring in the other 99.9 percent.” We’ve only been looking at a single facet of this incredibly complex gem.

Polzak: From my perspective as an academic, we do rely on the same sources. So how do we bring more voices to the table? How might we have shared expertise? We were fortunate to have members of our community at Williams and more broadly in Hawai‘i come speak. It was moving to have conversations with our students, many of whom cite your class, Scott, as the first time they had a conversation about the Haystack Monument or thought about Hawai‘i as a multi-ethnic nation. This exhibition is not just about making restitution about a past that’s ignored. It’s also about reminding ourselves that the way we talk about these histories right now can be vital and vibrant and can address those historical concerns but also remind us what we bring to it.

K. Scott Wong: I had no idea about the Williams connection to Hawai‘i even years after I got here. Then I visited Hawai‘i and the Bishop Museum, a local and missionary history museum. There was a quilt donated by a family from Bennington, Vt., and a bed frame made in Gardner, the furniture capital of Massachusetts. It made me wonder what New England has to do with Hawai‘i. Lately, I’ve been looking at even bigger networks. Religious fervor was flourishing throughout upstate New York and into parts of New England. A missionary movement doesn’t surprise me if it’s linked to the Second Great Awakening. I start my course by saying that Asia has always been a part of American history. Columbus leaves Europe not to look for America but for China and India, and he runs into this land mass. People are not interested in the New World, they’re trying to get around it. Then explorers like Henry Hudson are trying to find the Northwest Passage to get to China and Asia, and in the meantime they learn about Hawai‘i because of Captain James Cook, whose journals they read. They realize, “There’s an island out there where we can refuel and get water.” It’s part of the whaling industry, which is out of New England. So Europe, New England, Hawai‘i and Asia all get bound up in this trade network. Americans begin to impose American law—New England law—on Hawai‘i. A good example is sugar. People from Boston and Maine become sugar planters in Hawai‘i by the 1840s because the Civil War means sugar can’t be transported north from the Caribbean. Hawai‘i unfortunately becomes a nexus of capitalism, colonialism and religious transformation.

Coggins: I, too, had no idea about this history when I arrived here, but I was in the midst personally of asking, “How did I end up in this little place in Massachusetts?” At the same time, my uncle, our family genealogist, was looking for a record of a conversation between Charles Stewart, who was in the second group of missionaries, and my great, times five, grandmother, Emilia Keaweamahi. I Googled Stewart. Up popped William Richards and the Haystack Meeting, and this history started to unravel. I came at it from a personal connection, picking up a dropped stitch in my family history. I can’t read the letters in our exhibition from Armstrong’s archive because my grandmother was not allowed to speak Hawaiian. I feel kept at a distance and yet so compelled to connect with it.

Polzak: I had not spent a lot of time in New England before I started working here. So when I first saw the Congregational church on campus, I was like, “That looks like the Kawaiaha‘o Church in Honolulu.” It’s a very New England version of American culture brought to Hawai‘i. Also, Scott, you’ve done something radical: Reminding us all that Hawai‘i was far, but it wasn’t a passing exotic interest or irrelevant in the 19th century. It was incredibly important to trade networks, and that led people to become interested in the form of governance in Hawai‘i.

Valk: With a collection of residence halls named Mission Park, a Congregational church in the center of campus and the Haystack Monument, the history of Williams and Hawai‘i is visible. Yet it remains something people don’t talk about. I’m reminded of the relationship between New England and the slave trade, which was deeply covered and now is more visible—not uncontested, but much more visible.

Polzak: We are seeing in the field of American studies a lot of headway in recognizing indigenous histories of New England. A moment that is really strong for me in the exhibition is in Nālamakū’s narration, when he makes parallels between New Englanders in Hawai‘i and what happened here with the erasure of Mahican histories. The histories are uncomfortable, they don’t make us feel great about who we’ve been in the past, which can be an impediment to thinking about how they’re intertwined. The economies supported by slavery generated the wealth to fund expeditions to the Pacific. I don’t mean to suggest that missionaries in Hawai‘i supported slavery. Many dissented when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions collected donations from those who profited from slavery. But, broadly speaking, issues of land ownership, economics and race in the U.S. and in Hawai‘i took many forms. How do we look at these histories as interconnected? In an 1880 address to a YMCA, Armstrong says Hawaiians wear civilization like a mantle but don’t understand it for themselves. He sees civilization as a gift that has been given to them, just as he saw it as a gift to the free black people of the South. In his terms, they needed guidance from the U.S. government.

Wong: If you look at the Congressional debates on Hawaiian statehood, you have a racist South that really doesn’t want Hawai‘i to be a state, because it means people of color—Asians and mixed-race people—become American citizens. When sociologists go to Hawai‘i in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Hawai‘i becomes “a social laboratory of race relations.” A lot of sociologists feel it to be a tinderbox, a microcosm of American race relations. But because it’s off the mainland, we don’t really have to incorporate those issues into mainstream American society.

Valk: Another thread is the shaping and promoting of particular kinds of knowledge. What do you think about the Lyceum of Natural History and its organization of knowledge? How does the exhibition get at that theme?

Coggins: Early on, we realized that an exhibition of the material found in the box in Fayerweather Hall is an inherently colonial form. Exhibitions have a long history of expressing something in an authoritative voice. We were interested in opening a dialogue and moving beyond the binary understanding of a history to look at its full texture. Could we signal an incompleteness, an open-endedness, in the form of an exhibition? Could we co-opt the structures, mechanics and infrastructure of exhibition-making and undermine them at the same time? Could we liberate these objects from taxonomies, from histories in which they’ve long been affixed, by taking them out of categories and giving them a sense of agency, by pairing them with other objects? That was our approach to the Lyceum show, and that extended to the cataloguing of the objects. We’ve tried to expose other problems of cataloguing objects by displaying the original cataloguing and then drawing lines through it and saying, “Anonymous? No. Maker not known.” Instead of trying to articulate something from the outside as the final word, we are expressing our own vulnerability, our own lack of knowledge.

Polzak: The idea of mastery is continuous with precisely the colonial mode of display.

Coggins: That is at the heart of a lot of the photographs in the show. This is the moment of the birth of photography. Picturing what people look like in this place and sending those pictures all over the world, and then Armstrong collecting them and making an album of them—that is an expression of control. He is trying to understand this place, and so he binds it up in an album with labels such as “Hawaiians eating fish and poi.” You flip the page, and it’s a landscape of Diamondhead. You flip again, and it’s the first mission building in Hawai‘i. You flip again, and it’s a prison. That object speaks to how he was imaging this place for the broader world and the agency that comes with the ability to do that.

Ahsing: This web of history leads me to ask what defines Hawaiian art. Is it the making of a kupe‘e, a 200-year-old dog-toothed anklet for hula? Or is it the synthesis of ancestral knowledge, kānaka maoli [Native Hawaiian] ways of being, and contemporary life into artistic creations? Is it art that sits in a museum, or is it art made by Hawaiians? This exhibition points to a time of extreme transformation, growth and destruction, an entire century that has gone unspoken of. It takes a spotlight and says, “Hey, here’s this connection.” For example, we see civic engagement through newspapers as a way to record and accentuate what’s held in oral traditions. Puakea notes that from the birth of the press in Hawai‘i in the 1830s, you see an explosion of independent, autonomously run newspapers. From 1861 to the end of Hawaiian newspapers around 1948, you have this huge production of newspapers highlighting an extremely engaged and active writing community, a community that is debating among themselves.

Wong: Newspapers are debating issues as late as 1948?

Ahsing: The last Hawaiian newspaper ran until 1948.

Wong: And they’re in Hawaiian language?

Ahsing: In Hawaiian language. There were definitely mission presses within Hawai‘i. But there are also bilingual newspapers in Japanese and Chinese, bilingual newspapers in Hawaiian and Chinese. There was even a trilingual one that was Filipino, English and Japanese. And then over time you have the decline of Hawaiian newspapers, and it goes all English after that.

Wong: Which coincides with the decline of the plantation system, as the people on the plantations disperse to Honolulu and other cities or are shunted into schools with English as the only language. It’s really with the end of World War II that Hawai‘i becomes a tourist attraction, because of the airplane. Once commercial airlines go to Hawai‘i, you have the tourist trade. Then the economy of Hawai‘i is radically transformed.

Illustration of a needlework path leading into the horizonPolzak: We talk about first contact between Europe and Hawai‘i, about Cook, about feather capes—and we esteem the ones that are early. Then we talk about contemporary Hawaiian art. But we don’t often talk about the 19th century. I have a set of newspapers from January through March of 1893, and it’s really common to see statements like, “They’re going to give up wearing fig leaves over their genitals,” or “They’re not literate.” Hawaiians never wore fig leaves. People were wearing European garments before the arrival of the Congregationalist missionaries. And we are ignoring that Hawai‘i had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. With the letters with mele [songs] sent from Hawaiians to Armstrong in our show [which were donated with his papers to Williams], we’re seeing people engaged with an intellectual community in Hawai‘i. There’s nothing about this history that can be simplified into a binary.

Valk: The anklet made of dog teeth seems a central object in the exhibition. What is its significance?

Coggins: The kupe‘e is the hinge point for this whole endeavor. When you approach the threshold and see the kupe‘e, you’re welcomed by Nālamakū’s voice and an oli [chant] that he wrote as an invitation into the space.

Polzak: We have this kupe‘e that was perhaps made at the beginning of the 19th century, and we also have an oli written today. Hawaiian culture is not just a stagnant thing where you’re replicating the past. It’s enduring, still taking new forms. But the kupe‘e has been removed from its body, and we have no way of returning it.

Ahsing: For me, the kupe‘e is a beacon of hope. It was in a box for a long time, and now we have this blossoming of people having uncomfortable conversations around it and other objects, and with this history. This kind of work changes the fabric of the future, listening back to the past, looking forward, walking into the future looking back.
Wong: I can go to the Bishop Museum and see things that come from Bennington, Vt. Then we have Hawaiian art in a basement at Williams. It’s a big circuit. The circular movements of ideas, objects and people is fascinating. Without a moral judgment, things move.

Polzak: The exciting thing is that objects and photographs carry so much history, but they don’t tell you to interpret that one way or another. When I look at that kupe‘e, I see that its history is not done being written. I have a view of it that upsets me, and at the same time I feel hopeful that we continue to add readings to it. And so the story doesn’t stop with the view that I like the least.

Threads of history

The timeline that accompanies the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibition “The Field is the World” is deceptively simple. Covering three walls of the Stoddard Gallery, it consists of three lines: red for Hawai‘i’s transition from kingdom to republic; blue for moments in Williams’ history that informed its connection with the island; and purple for the dozens of Williams people shaping and shaped by that connection in the 19th century.

The connection likely began with Samuel Mills, Class of 1809, one of the five students at the Haystack Prayer Meeting that led to the birth of the American missionary movement. Mills heard about Hawai‘i through a kānaka maoli—a Native Hawaiian—named ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia, who came to New England and became a missionary. Their friendship may have influenced the first group of U.S. missionaries who chose Hawai‘i as a destination, though Mills never traveled there himself.

Aboard the second mission was Plainfield, Mass.-born William Richards, Class of 1819, who settled in Hawai‘i and influenced many decisions about governance.

The founding in 1841 of the Punahou School for the children of missionaries deepened the connection. Six Williams alumni served as a president, trustee or faculty member in the 19th century, and many Punahou graduates went on to Williams, including Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Class of 1862.

Born on Maui, Armstrong was editor of a Hawaiian-language newspaper when he came to Williams. In 1860, he put out a call to kānaka maoli for transcripts of Hawaiian mele, songs passed down orally for generations. He received many that may not have been documented before. He later fought for the Union Army and helped establish Hampton University in Virginia. His papers were donated to Williams; the letters containing transcribed mele are part of WCMA’s exhibition.

Honolulu-born Sanford B. Dole attended Williams from 1866 to 1867. He returned to Hawai‘i, became a lawyer and, acting on behalf of Hawaiian sugar interests, worked to overthrow the monarchy. Together with Nathaniel Bright Emerson, Class of 1865, William E. Rowell, Class of 1867, and several other missionary sons, Dole helped draft the Constitution of 1888, known as the Bayonet Constitution. He eventually became president of the Republic of Hawai‘i.

The timeline is one thread in a rich, albeit incomplete, tapestry of the long and complex relationship between Williams and Hawai‘i. Says Sonnet Kekilia Coggins, WCMA’s associate director for academic and public engagement, “Perhaps by sparking visitors’ curiosity, the exhibition will lead others to unearth more.”

The Lyceum and Material History

How do methods of collecting and exhibiting material artifacts impact past and present narratives? That’s a question posed by the exhibition “The Field is the World,” now on view at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).

A major piece of the exhibition involves the Williams College Lyceum of Natural History, a student-run club founded in 1835, before the college offered courses in the natural sciences. The club sponsored exhibitions all over the world and brought back specimens for its collections, which were housed in a building where Prospect House now stands. The Lyceum, which closed in 1914, was “a wonderful example of students taking charge of their own intellectual endeavors,” says Henry Art, director of Williams’ Center for Environmental Studies and the Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, emeritus.

Art became an unofficial historian of the Lyceum after he found a rain-soaked box outside Griffin Hall in the 1980s and began piecing together the story of its contents. Around the same time, another box was discovered in the basement of Fayerweather Hall and sent to WCMA for safekeeping. Sonnet Kekilia Coggins, associate director for academic and public engagement, found it a few years ago while researching a connection between her Hawaiian ancestors and Williams.

WCMA’s box contained a Hawaiian kupe‘e niho ‘īlio, an anklet made of dog teeth, possibly acquired from the Wilkes Expedition to the Pacific (1838-1842). The ankletand many other artifacts are on view in “The Field is the World” with original labels written by Lyceum students. WCMA staff updated the labels where they found information to be wrong or, as is the case with the kupe‘e, still unknown.

Despite the uncertainty of its journey from Hawai‘i to Williams, the anklet—and the Lyceum itself—have come to symbolize the complex relationship between two distinct places over the course of two centuries