Saturday, April 20, 2013

Week Last: Do You Wanna Go Straight to Hawaii?

This week's readings put me in mind of the abovementioned Beach Boys song. One of my well-hidden obsessions is the Beach Boys. You can listen to the song here. That has nothing to do with the readings. But it's in my head now, so I thought I'd share. Moving on.

This week's reading concerned a very real problem with public history: the evidence/truth vs. people's perception of it. In 2003, Robert R. Weyenth wrote a book on the history of Hawaii's "Central Park," otherwise known as Kapi'olani Park. As is almost always the case, actual historical documentation differs here from the local people's memories. According to the residents of the area, the park had been created around 1870 by King Kamehameha as a gift to the people of Oahu. It was, in public memory, a benevolent gift from the king. Weyenth's research suggested otherwise. According to the research, it was indeed established in the 1870s by the king, but instead of being a gift to the subjects of Hawaii, it was established more as an exclusive seaside suburb/resort for the Hawaiian aristocracy. And thus it remained for about twenty years; a luxurious getaway for the members of the royal court. As a result, Weyenth received a bit of hostility regarding his book, including legal action, as community members called his work "libelous."

Weyenth's point was that public historians have to always be ready to face such hostility from their communities. Native Hawaiians wanted to remember their former royalty as benevolent, rather than otherwise. This of course is understandable, especially since Hawaii has such a unique heritage from the other states. I suppose that for some, it'd be more or less like the reaction a lot of people had to the movie Lincoln, in which they discovered he wasn't the "friend of the black man" they had always imagined. In these cases, the public historian has to make sure that he or she is aware of the possible controversy, knowledgeable of the sources and possible other interpretations, and willing to know when to fight- legally, if necessary- and when not to. It is a hard call to make sometimes, but it is a challenge all public historians must be willing to accept, especially when dealing with something which has become legendary in the community.

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