15 Jan 2024  |  Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu & Shelley Angelie Saggar

Fault Lines: Curator Q&A with Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu

Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu (Kanaka ʻOiwi/Native Hawaiian) is a fifteen-year veteran of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where she developed scores of exhibitions and programs, including the renovation of Hawaiian Hall (2009), Pacific Hall (2013), and the landmark ‘E Kū Ana Ka Paia’ exhibition (2010). Noelle has a law degree from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she also currently serves as an assistant specialist in Public Humanities and Native Hawaiian Programs within the American Studies Department. Her current research and practice explores the liberating and generative opportunities presented when museums “seed” authority.

She is part of the curatorial collective for Fault Lines: Imagining Indigenous futures for colonial collections and spoke to Shelley Angelie Saggar, Research Assistant on the project, for this interview.

1)   SAS: By way of an introduction, can you tell us about how you came to work with Indigenous materials in museum collections?

NK: It was certainly a circuitous route. In the 1990s I worked in Washington, D.C. as counsel for the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The Committee has jurisdiction over issues related to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and we were considering amendments to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which mandates the return of specific classes of items held by museums and other federally-funded institutions in the US. This led to my involvement with a community-based group, Hui Mālama i Nā Kupuna o Hawai’i Nei, where I became involved with the repatriation and reburial of Hawaiian ancestral remains. Upon returning to Hawaiʻi, I ended up at Bishop Museum, working to identify unassociated funerary objects. Unbeknownst to me, it would turn into a 15-year career, enabling me to work in collections, education, exhibitions, and community affairs. It has afforded me the opportunity to visit museums and Hawaiian collections throughout the US and in Aotearoa (New Zealand), England and Germany and to work on major projects, including the renovation of both the Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian and Pacific Halls. Although I am now a faculty member at the University of Hawai'i, and the Acting Director of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program, I remain profoundly connected to museums and the Indigenous collections they steward.

2)   SAS: Yourself and the three other curators of Fault Lines (Leah Lui-Chivizhe, Taloi Havini, and Jordan Wilson) spent research time in Hawaiʻi in the summer of 2023. How did this bring you together and shape your collective vision?

NK: We spent time not only on Oʻahu, but we also travelled to Hawaiʻi Island, where Kīlauea, an active volcano, was steaming and rumbling. In fact, it erupted several weeks after we visited. During our time together, and over the course of many conversations, we realized that we all came from places with volcanic origins. This shifted our focus from the oceanic metaphors that are so often invoked to describe Pacific collections. Instead, we decided to concentrate on the seismic shifts that are currently happening in the museum world, enabling us to see this exhibition as an opportunity to explore museum collections as sites of historic fracture but also emergent potentiality.

Making volcanic connections at the summit of Kīlauea. From left to right: Jordan Wilson, Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, Taloi Havini and Leah Lui-Chivizhe. Photo: Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu

3) SAS: A central aspect of your specific curatorial contribution is an active intervention in the display of an ahuʻula (feather cape) currently in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. What are your ambitions for this intervention and why is this important in both the immediate and longer term?

NK: I have twice visited the Pitt Rivers Museum (in 2018 and 2023), and both times remained incensed at the display of an ahuʻula (fibre cape - 1938.35.1653) which appeared in the Hawaiian feather cloak case. Installed sometime in the 1960s, this cape has been positioned sideways, at a complete 90 degree angle, ever since due to the fact that this was the only space available in the case. In all my travels and across the many museums I have visited, I have never seen an ahuʻula be treated in this way.

Ahuʻula convey the genealogical mana (spiritual power) of the aliʻi (chiefs) for whom they were made. These capes were the most treasured of possessions. Not only was the current display culturally disrespectful, but from an ethical standpoint, it presumed that the colonial imperative to maximize the display of Hawaiian material culture was more important than the contextual concerns of the source community.

When I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in October 2023 as part of the research for Fault Lines, I spoke with the Collections Team who were aware of the issue and already seeking to carefully correct it. I raised the possibility of seeking a loan of the ahuʻula for our exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology which could, in the short term, provide an opportunity to tell this story and activate work towards a redisplay. However, sixty years of problematic display cannot be corrected overnight, so a longer term ambition of mine is to bring in Indigenous featherwork conservators to learn from this example and help to restore the ahuʻula to its fullest potential.

4)   SAS: There has been much talk of “decolonization” in museums. What are your thoughts on this term and how does it differ from “Indigenization”?

NK: Some say that colonial institutions cannot be "decolonized" because coloniality characterizes their very core. But equally, we might ask how a colonial institution can be "Indigenized" when the vast majority of its staff, leadership, and executive board are non-Indigenous?

There are, however, some museums which are leading the way in terms of proactive research and collaborative action. The Museum of Us in San Diego (formerly the Museum of Man) are examining the colonial context of their collections and questioning past aquisitions that occurred under threat, duress, or due to power imbalances. They are also instructing researchers to obtain tribal permission before being granted access to the museum’s archival or ethnographic collections. These are profound steps in the right direction that elevate community protocols above colonial research paradigms.

It is one thing to attempt to "undo" or address past wrongs, but to truly decolonize, museums must commit to relationships with communities that extend into the future. I believe that it is no longer about "ceding" authority to Indigenous communities, it is about "seeding" authority, wherein such relationships are generative and based on a committment to future endeavors. Museums also need to understanding their shifting role from one of ownership to custodial care — a transition that Fault Lines aims to encourage and address.

5)   SAS: What are some theories and practices that are shaping your approach to the exhibition?

NK: I am interested in how museums and communities of origin can develop meaningful relationships in ways that demonstrate that we are not solely conscripted to our past. This requires investments of time and face-to-face encounters, he alo a he alo — facing forward together. We need to not only meet across the conference table, but over the dinner table, sharing food and learning each others’ stories and the names of our loved ones. Transformative changes are made through meaningful relationships, which is something I’ve come to think of as "aloha relationality", wherein the elements, the collections, and the relations between peoples manifest as connective threads linking us across space, time, and global geographies.

Kilauea summitThe summit of Kīlauea. Photo: private

6)   SAS: How do you envision the contribution of this exhibition to the community?

NK: I hope that by sharing the ways in which the museum field is shifting, that the community can see themselves as a fundamental part of these collections, with a significant say in both their histories and futures. The collections represented within the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are not only tangible representations of a colonial past, but also enable profound relationality with source communities today. Museums are thus active spaces to cultivate new relationships and new understandings through creative collaboration and collective stewardship.

7)   SAS: In what ways do the research aims of the wider “Indigeneities in the 21st Century” project shape your thinking with regard to the Fault Lines exhibition?

NK: As a curatorial collective, we struggled with the IndiGen project’s original framing that conceptualized Indigenous peoples as shifting ‘from “vanishing people” to global players in one generation,’ because it is not rooted in an Indigenous perspective. Did Indigenous peoples of the 18th and 19th centuries see themselves as disappearing? Perhaps some did, but some, like King Kalākaua, who circumnavigated the globe, saw himself as an international political player, negotiating treaties with Japan, America, and European nations.

Centuries ago, our ancestors engaged with constellations, undertook long-distance voyages, and held layered understandings of seasonal changes. Such knowledge was both local and global. Rather than frame our historic and contemporary lives as a dichotomy between these two paradigms, through this exhibition, our curatorial collective considers how we, as Indigenous peoples, have always operated between the local and the global, both then and now. 

The beauty of the wider IndiGen project lies in its intersectionality and the way the broader team’s research crosses disciplines, geographies, and even media, ranging from an award-winning animated film to academic publications and museum exhibitions. We appreciate the opportunities the IndiGen project provides to engage with that which was made by our ancestors, and to help actively inform museums on the complex meanings and concepts embedded within historical collections, as well as the issues and concerns of their contemporary descendants.

8)   SAS: A central aspect of this exhibition examines and imagines Indigenous futures for colonial collections in museums. What do these look like to you?

NK: For native communities, the notion of "Indigenous futures" — around which this exhibition was originally framed — is perplexing. Is there a question as to whether we will survive into the future? Or is this a question of how our future selves will be informed, based not wholly on the colonial past but on some amalgamation of our contemporary selves? How have we changed? How is who we once were reflected in who we are now?

In Hawaiʻi, there were as many as a million Kanaka living throughout the islands when Cook came ashore in 1778.  And yet, we who live today are descendants of the mere 40,000 who were still alive a century later, even after the devastation that colonisation wrought. From these ancestors, we have grown to more than 500,000 people who are spread across the globe. We have unquestionably survived.

We wonder, instead, if the question should be reframed. In our collective vision for our Indigenous futures, what is the role of the museum? In other words, what is the future of the museum itself? The relationship between museums and Indigenous peoples has rapidly transformed just in the last decade, with significant treasures, like Kalaniʻōpuʻuʻs cloak, being permanently returned to Hawaiʻi by Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of Aotearoa New Zealand, where it had been held.

These collections are much more alive than we realize. They hear our calls, as we hear theirs, and we respond to each other. We have so much gratitude for those who have stewarded our beloved mea waiwai aliʻi (chiefly treasures) but I have come to see that museums are not mausoleums where relics of the past go to sleep. Sometimes museums are way stations, and the journey of these treasures need not be over. Fault Lines allows us to consider the full gamut of these destinies.


Fault Lines: Imagining indigenous futures for colonial collections is curated by Taloi Havini, Leah Lui-Chivizhe, Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, and Jordan Wilson. The exhibition opens in December 2024 at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.