Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Scott Reinke, conservation technician at Hamilton Library, prepares to matte a gold leaf, ink and color calligraphy plate from a 14th century Antiphonal (liturgical chant) choir book for a Benedictine Nunnery. It is one of the University of Hawaii library treasures on view at the UH Art Gallery through Nov. 10. In the background, Christine Takata is also working on the show.

Sense of renewal

Some of the works exhibited at UH
were rescued from last year's flood

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the living now evacuated, relief efforts are focused on recovery and cleanup, but New Orleans museum directors have their own set of woes. For them the city's losses will be measured in cultural treasures lost.

Watching the New Orleans story unfold, Scott David Reinke, a conservation technician in the Preservation Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Hamilton Library, and Tom Klobe, director of the UH Art Gallery, are feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Klobe was at home at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 30 last year when a student called to say there was water on the department floor. Klobe imagined it was no more than an air-conditioner leak, but when the student walked to the main gallery, he said, "I could hear her sloshing around."

He raced to campus to salvage what he could.

The situation was worse at the library, where floodwater from Manoa Stream filled the basement and caused extensive damage throughout the building. Repair work continues.

The scroll and wooden pagoda represent one of a million Buddhist prayers distributed through Japan temples in 764.

"It was kind of spooky," Klobe said. "We had just been there looking at the maps (to go on exhibit) a few days before, and one that was chosen to be in the show was lost."

The thread of flood, loss and recovery, among other connections, has gone into the creation of the gallery's ambitious new exhibition, "Making Connections: Treasures from the University of Hawaii Library," which Klobe describes, with some relief, as a "phoenix rising."

The timely exhibition celebrates the spirit of exploration, learning and sharing, the building blocks of culture. It's the first showing of nearly 400 objects from Hamilton Library's rare and special collections, including rare books, historical documents and artwork. Among items on display are five maps damaged by the Manoa flooding. The maps were painstakingly cleaned of mud, mold and water damage by experts who came from New Zealand, Brigham Young University and the University of San Diego.

Other objects include letters by Hawaii's monarchs and materials from the University Archives, Hawaii War Records Depository, the Sakamaki/Hawley Collection, the Jean Charlot Collection and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association Plantation Archives.

From handwritten journals and hand-bound texts, to illuminated manuscripts by Benedictine monks exhibiting delicate filigree, calligraphy and gold-leaf work, the items often represent labors of love.

The top photo shows the flood damage on Maris Pacifici, published in Antwerp in 1589 and considered to be the first printed map of the Pacific Ocean. Below, the map has been cleaned up for display. Six freezers were contributed by Matson after the flood to stave off mold growth.


"(Knowledge) wasn't taken for granted in the past," Reinke said. "It was a precious commodity, and the craftsmanship of many of these items is incredible."

The exhibition highlights a Catch-22 among those charged with archiving and preserving the rarest materials.

"With more exposure you risk damaging the items," said Reinke. "Any kind of light is dangerous. That's why the windows at the gallery have been blacked out. Even a little UV light can cause the work to fade."

But the alternative would be to keep such works secreted away, limiting their use for scholarship, the reason they continue to be preserved.

"You just want to make sure you have good education in place so that people know how fortunate we are to have these items," Reinke said, adding that the works will likely return to the collections under better conditions. For months he's been constructing custom boxes to protect books from light and the dramatic temperature change from the library's air-conditioned environment to high humidity outdoors.

"They'll go back to the shelves in their boxes so they'll be housed better," he said. "Most conservation work is either user- or exhibition-driven because we don't handle until something goes out. Some things we have to stabilize. We've been documenting everything so we know what condition it's in before it goes on exhibit, and what to look for when it comes back.

"Hopefully, we benefit the item, but it's a trade-off as far as handling the items vs. educational possibilities.

The numerous catastrophes of the Ansei Period (1854-1860) were recorded in woodblock prints, publications and newspaper articles. A major typhoon hit the Kanto area in 1856 and caused disastrous floods in Edo. This 1856 work is contained in one of three volumes of "Ansei Fubunshu (Collection of Hearsays in the Ansei Period)."

AFTER STAGING a similar exhibition for a Historical Society exhibit in 1992, Klobe said he was intrigued by the idea of showcasing the treasures for students right on campus.

"You never know what kinds of connections can be made through them," he said, having made connections of his own after his travels to Tasmania and lands Down Under. "I kept meeting up with (Capt. William) Bligh of 'Mutiny on the Bounty' fame because he became the governor of Australia. He had a mutiny there, too. I guess he wasn't good at administration."

In putting together the exhibition, he came upon a portrait of Thursday October Christian, the son of Fletcher Christian, who led the 1789 HMS Bounty mutiny at sea. Klobe paired the portrait with aquatint plates of seashells from George Perry's "Conchology," speculating that Perry might have based his work on specimens collected on one of Bligh's Pacific expeditions, allowing the viewer to consider the captain's scholarly contributions beyond his infamy.

Klobe met with UH librarians about the collection's treasures and took notes on nearly 800 pieces in putting together the exhibition, weaving through it the story of the library's founding and its expertise in subject matter related to Hawaii, the Pacific and Asia.

Although flooding delayed the show from its intended March opening, the extra time turned out to be a blessing. Because of the gallery's limited wall space, a maze was constructed to house the exhibition, and 64 cases were built to contain and protect the books. Those with a love of paper and fabric would otherwise find it hard to resist touching the pages, many times comprising silk, crepe and other textured, fibrous papers.

Among these are English and German editions of Takejiro Hasegawa's woodblock-printed crepe-paper books featuring Japanese fairy tales.

The oldest item in the collection is a yellowed prayer scroll dating to 764, when Empress Shötoku of Japan decreed that a million Buddhist prayers be printed. Each prayer (dharani) was housed in its own wooden pagoda, in turn protected by a wooden box. The pagodas were distributed through temples throughout Japan. The UH's dharani came from Horyüji Temple, the only one that retains a collection of the prayers, the world's earliest examples of printing on paper.

Most of the items are gifts from donors who wish to see such documents preserved, but in a society inundated with junk mail, paperbacks, newsletters and other printed material, it's not always obvious which will have value to future historians.

Among works collected are posters created by local children during World War II, admonishing fellow citizens to "Dig" their victory gardens or "Speak American" to show patriotism.

In the spirit of "Making Connections," bookmarks will be distributed to include information and Web sites that cover the Gulf states' cultural institutions and treasures damaged or lost in Hurricane Katrina, and what can be done to help.

'Making Connections'

"Treasures from the University of Hawai'i Library" features books, art and special materials:

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 10

Place: University of Hawai'i Art Gallery, UHM Art Building

Admission: Free; donations welcome

Call: 956-6888

Also: Hamilton Libary is showing "The World of Washi" and "Library Treasures on the Bridge" through Oct. 21

Note: The 164-page exhibition catalog sells for $25 (for mail order add $7.50 shipping)

Free talks

"Folk Taxonomy: Getting to Know Hawaiian Plants": With professor emeritus Isabella Abbott, 7 p.m. tomorrow, Art Auditorium.

"Performing the Library: A Celebration": With professor emeritus Greg Dening, University of Melbourne, 7 p.m. Oct. 12, Art Auditorium.

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