The Restoration Of A Pacific Hero: Heritage Conservation As Cultural Work

Glenn Wharton, research scholar
New York University

During 117 years of outdoor exposure, the bronze sculpture of celebrated Hawaiian King Kamehameha I suffered corrosive action from chlorides, tropical humidity, and high ultraviolet radiation. In addition to this physical deterioration, the artist’s original gilt bronze surface was replaced with a local tradition of painting the figure with brilliant, life-like colors. The central question in the conservation of the monument was one of authenticity; whether to respect the original conception of the artist by re-gilding the surface or to honor the contemporary tradition of painting it.

The community was divided on the issue, and the decision-making process involved a broad spectrum of local residents in dialogue and exploration of its deeper cultural significance. For the conservator, this community-based conservation process provided cultural infor-mation that guided conservation decisions. For the community, the project served as a window into relationships between the multi-cultural present and the Native Hawaiian past. In the end, it was decided to keep the statue painted in the brilliant colors, bringing to life a king still relevant to his community after all of these years.