O‘ahu Museum Ideas: Return a Royal Relic to ‘Iolani Palace

Videos and Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino


Iolani Palace has shone as a beacon of innovation since 1882, when King Kalākaua first moved in. Known for his scientific curiosity, Kalākaua arranged for electricity to light the exterior of the palace in 1886 after meeting Thomas Edison in New York. Interior lights soon followed. The White House in Washington, D.C., installed electricity five years later.


Present-day visitors touring the only official royal residence in the country are often surprised to learn how Kalākaua embraced inventions and advancements, says longtime historian and docent educator Zita Cup Choy, especially as the leader of a small independent nation in the remote Pacific, in a time before air travel. The palace had indoor plumbing and a telephone before either of these were common, she says. The palace serves as a cultural center and a vivid reminder of the proud national identity of Hawai‘i.

  ‘Iolani Palace


SEE ALSO: Take a 360-Degree Tour of ‘Iolani Palace With New LED Lighting


Cup Choy is one of the original class of volunteers who signed up in 1977 for months of docent training so they could share the fascinating history of the palace and the stories of Kalākaua; his wife, Queen Kapi‘olani; and his sister, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who succeeded him after his death in 1891. After her overthrow, succeeding governments took over the palace and used it as the capital for nearly 80 years. During that time, the building was haphazardly modified, dilapidated and termite-eaten. In the 1960s, The Junior League of Honolulu took on the research that led to the renovation so large, HONOLULU Magazine devoted an entire issue to the effort.



Modern artists now enrich the palace through creative reproductions of earlier works. Feather artist Kawika Lum-Nelmida has spent roughly 600 hours building two new kahili to be placed this month in the king’s bedroom, where Kalākaua once displayed earlier feather standards. Looking at the black rooster feathers he is bundling, Lum-Nelmida admits the project is very humbling: “This is going to be by the side of a bed that our king slept in.”


For the multiple reconstruction and restoration projects at the palace over the years, Cup Choy says researchers compare samples of colors of items they know with those they don’t. And they’re always looking for more clues, sometimes from families who pass down stories of family visits during the monarchy, or when items auctioned after the overthrow are brought back through donations. Check online to see if you have one of the palace’s most wanted items.



Sometimes research turns up facets that reveal glimpses of daily life, Cup Choy says, such as how Kalākaua entertained more at one meal than all others combined: breakfast, which usually began about 9:30 in the morning and ended at noon.


The state of Hawai‘i owns and provides a capital budget for the government building. But about 60 percent of the $2 million operation budget comes from admission fees. This latest kahili project, funded by a $30,000 gift from the Regina Kāwananakoa Estate, offers another portal into the living history of Hawai‘i.


“Our culture is always expanding, it’s not stagnant,” Lum-Nelmida says. “We keep to traditional practices but we can still move forward and relate to us and our age.”


See how cultural practitioner Kawika Lum-Nelmida builds a royal kahili and learn more about the project.




The Nā Mo‘olelo Lecture Series features Wednesday evening presentations by Hawaiian cultural experts, historians and museum professionals about preserving and sharing culture and history, Can’t make it? You can watch videos of the lectures at iolanipalace.org.

Learn a Hawaiian art at quilting classes for all levels, held every Saturday morning.




Founded Completed for King Kalākaua in 1882, opened as a museum in 1978.

Info 364 S. King St., (808) 522-0822, iolanipalace.org

Admission Guided tours adult $27, kama‘āina/military $23, children (ages 5–12) $6. Self-guided audio tours are $5 less for adults. Residents and military are free once a month on Kama‘āina Sundays.

Hours Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Size 34,000 square feet

Annual visitors 131,240 in 2017

Run by Nonprofit The Friends of ‘Iolani Palace

Fun fact King Kalākaua had two ice cream makers installed in ‘Iolani Palace in the 1880s.