Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, July 23, 1998

Palace Friends president
should resign

ABIGAIL Kawananakoa should return to her earlier impulse and resign as president of the Friends of Iolani Palace. Her tenure dates back to the early 1970s, soon after the state moved into the new Capitol and allowed the palace to become a museum run by the Friends.

She has ruled too autocratically too long for the long-term health of the organization. Several Hawaiian community leaders left her board feeling frustrated and helpless.

She runs matters through an executive committee she appoints. She maneuvered a change in the Friends' by-laws to say that all members of the board would serve three-year terms, except for the president.

Her tenure, as with a queen, is for life, but not quite. She can be fired by a majority of the board. To resign would be preferable, but storms may be building up within the board that could lead to her firing.

The recent ruckuses over her sitting on a fragile royal throne for a photo by Life magazine, the protest over it by James Bartels, longtime palace curator, and his subsequent resignation are just symptoms.

The trouble is deeper and long-standing or there wouldn't be so much support for Bartels from the docents who conduct palace tours, and just-below-the-surface rumblings not for public quotation by present and former board members, whose reverence for the palace is unquestioned.

One ex-board member recalls that Kawan-anakoa became president "by accident." Another nominee for the presidency declined and she, as a member of the nominating committee, quickly volunteered herself.

The trouble with her long reign is simple: She hasn't run things in a businesslike or participatory manner.

Yes, she is a descendant of royalty, but so is Bartels. And it is by no means clear she would be monarch today had the monarchy survived.

The palace has been brought forcibly to a need to reform its operations by the withdrawal of state subsidy, once $750,000 a year. Henceforth it will have to operate on its own, most likely supported primarily by visitor admission fees.

With only 72,000 visitors a year, compared to 1.4 million for the USS Arizona Memorial, it obviously is leaving a wide potential market untapped, no matter that Arizona admissions are free.

Visitor hours and days are limited. Reservations usually are required. Shoe covers are mandated for all allowed inside -- quite unlike the open visitations permitted to restored structures in Colonial Williamsburg and worldwide.

This comparison may be unfair considering the fragile condition of the palace, but unless some ways of wider visitation are developed, most of our part-Hawaiian population will never get inside this cherished shrine, not to mention other Hawaii residents.

Now, tourists make up the bulk of the 72,000 annual visitors. What they see is mummy-like, rather than a living, breathing place where royalty once ruled.

IF the palace fails as a separate entity, who would save it? Would the state resume control? Or Bishop Museum, already the owner of its thrones? Bishop Museum has a philosophy of encouraging accessibility, but is running deficits already. Could the rich Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate justify taking it over as part of its educational mission? Or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs? OHA also is rich but most of its revenues are restricted for people with 50 percent or more Hawaiian blood.

Those are all long-term possibilities. The short-term need is for savvy business management along with preservation and good care-taking. Princess Abigail has lent the palace furniture, dishes and other royal items that she could take back, but that should not change the equation.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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