Check Out Rare Pieces of Hawaiian Innovation in “Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i” Exhibit

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, “Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era” includes kingdom telephones, photographs, textiles, royal orders, jewelry from ali‘i collections and more.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by the museum’s staff.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Photos: provided by Shuzo Uemoto


In Hawaiian, ho‘oulu can mean “to grow or raise.” It can be used when describing plants, the land and, in the case of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era, the growing of a nation.


Opened on Sept. 15, Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i is an exploration of the innovative cultural production—art, design, music and ideas—that commenced under the visionary monarch’s reign from 1874 to 1891 in order to present a national identity to a global audience.


The seminal exhibition is a labor of love for its curator, Healoha Johnston. When hired four years ago as the museum’s first Native Hawaiian curator, Johnston proposed an exhibition that focused on material culture to investigate ideas of cosmopolitanism, creativity and innovation in the Hawaiian Kingdom. According to Johnston, her love of contemporary art stems from the contemporary ethos that took place during Kalākaua’s time.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Curator Healoha Johnston leads a tour of the exhibition.


On display in the Henry R. Luce Gallery are early kingdom telephones, photographs, textiles, royal orders, jewelry from ali‘i collections and more. As important guardians of Hawai‘i’s material culture and patrimony, the Bishop Museum and ‘Iolani Palace agreed to collaborate with HoMA by loaning many works that have become essential to the exhibition, as did the Hawai‘i State Archives and Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. Many of the pieces haven’t been on display since entering their respective archive repositories more than 100 years ago.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Guests marvel at the photographs on view in the exhibition.


Highlights of the exhibition include the “Kalākaua Around the World Medal,” created by the head of state who in 1881 became the first monarch of any country to circumnavigate the globe. Part of his mission was to establish international alliances and relationships in Japan and Europe in order to curtail American interests in the Islands. Another objective was to pursue emerging technologies as a viable industry in Hawai‘i. For instance, the monarch met with Thomas Edison, a pioneer in bringing electric light to the masses, during a stop in New York, which led to an electrical system being installed in ‘Iolani Palace before the White House or Buckingham Palace.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Kalākaua Around the World Medal. Metal, cloth and porcelain. Kapiʻolani – Kalanianaʻole Collection, Bishop Museum.
Photo: Jesse W. Stephen, copyright © Bishop Museum; Bishop Museum Archives


During the late 19th century, photographers shared their work through slideshows, using lantern slides, which are glass plate photographic images. Most often, the original photograph was taken years earlier and then reproduced by another photographer looking to make a profit. The exhibition features various lantern slides depicting the ali‘i, such as Queen Kapi‘olani and Princess Lili‘uokalani in London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, what is believed to be the first photograph of hula, and pā‘ū riders—women who modified the pā‘ū into a pantslike garment to protect their dress when riding astride a horse.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Photographer unknown. Two female hula dancers; Hawaiʻi, ca. 1858. Iodized collodion, silver nitrate, glass, metal, leather, velvet, paint and varnish. Bishop Museum Archives
Photo: Bishop Museum Archives


Johnston’s favorite piece in the exhibition is the massive Queen Kapi‘olani riding cape, made of pheasant and fowl feathers. This ‘ahu ‘ula, or feather-work cloak or cape meant for only the highest ranking chiefs or warriors, has frog-style clasps and a velvet neckline that exhibits Hawai‘i’s unique take on Victorian-era style. Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

ʻAhu ʻula, ca. 1882. Pheasant feathers, fowl feathers, velvet, silk and “frog-style” clasps. Kapiʻolani – Kalanianaʻole Collection, Bishop Museum
Photo: Hal Lum and Masayo Suzuki, copyright © Bishop Museum; Bishop Museum Archives


Similar to how Kalākaua looked toward the future with technology, so does the exhibition itself. Guests can head over to the iPad station—the only current exhibition with such a digital engagement feature—to hear Hawaiian music playlists made by DJ Mermaid (Paige Okumura from KTUH), and also design their own royal order, just like a monarch.

  Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

Visitors design their own royal order and listen to playlists at the iPad station.


Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era will be on view until Jan. 27. It is free with museum admission. The museum will have free admission for kama‘āina with state-issued ID on Nov. 16—King Kalākaua’s birthday—as well as the first Wednesday and third Sunday of each month.