Preservation in Paradise: Working with the Collection at Shangri La

Kent Severson


Shangri La, a museum for Islamic art, culture and design, was built between 1936 and  1939 as the Honolulu home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993).   Inspired by her honeymoon trip to the Middle East and South Asia, Shangri La came to house her collection of Islamic Art.  The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, supports Shangri La’s mission today, including conservation and preservation of the collection of Islamic art and the ongoing presentation of Shangri La to the public.Designed to resemble homes found in many parts of the Islamic world, the house and grounds bring courtyards, gardens and lofty living spaces together through the use of large scale windows and doors that blur the difference between interior and exterior spaces.  Although Honolulu enjoys one of the most consistently pleasant climates anywhere on the planet, it is unmistakably tropical, with warm temperatures, elevated dewpoints and relentless sunshine.   Located on a terrace above a rocky shore facing the Pacific Ocean, breaking surf generates seawater aerosols that drift across the campus twenty four hours a day.  Shangri La was first opened to public tours in 2002 with an exhibition intended to evoke the atmosphere that might have existed while Doris Duke was alive.  The display includes furniture, textiles (including historic carpets), ceramic, glass and metal objects, as well as wood, ceramic and stone decorative elements permanently installed in the architecture. Although the interior spaces include a few built-in vitrines, much of this material is on open display in conditions rarely found in a museum.   Presentation of  the collection in this difficult environment consists of a wide-ranging mix of mitigation strategies that includes a rigorous program of  intensive regular cleaning, light control measures, and protective coatings.  While this has slowed the deterioration of many classes of materials, the work load of maintenance is strenuous and light exposure remains high.  Shangri La is currently undergoing a curatorial transformation that will reduce the number of objects displayed in open air.Components of the collection that are permanently installed in the architecture of Shangri La, and the decorative elements of the architecture itself, likewise suffer in Honolulu’s harsh marine environment.  In some cases, exposure to the elements has resulted in degradation that is sufficiently severe to require partial replacement as opposed to conservation treatment. Questions of sustainability and long term preservation in such an environment loom large at Shangri La.  Overall climate control in exhibition spaces has been proposed but will require thoughtful resolution of many logistical challenges in order to preserve Shangri La’s unique visitor experience. 

2020 | Online | Volume 27