On the road in Hawaii I: The Secretary’s travel journal

Secretary Clough introduces the Smithsonian’s longstanding relationship with Hawaii in Part One of his most recent travel journal.

August 29 – September 2, 2012

Hawaii, our nation’s youngest state, can make a number of claims to uniqueness—it is the southernmost state, the only one surrounded by water, the most diverse state, and one of the four states that were republics before they joined the union. It is also true that Hawaii is one of the few states that has scientific ties to the Smithsonian that began before the Institution was founded.  This early beginning has grown deep roots, and today, our work in Hawaii involves multiple units, including the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Zoo and its Conservation Biology Institute, the Natural History Museum, the American Indian Museum and the Asian Pacific American Program.

My recent visit over the Labor Day weekend allowed me to meet with our Smithsonian colleagues, tour our operations, and reach out to members of the Hawaii community who are friends and supporters of the Smithsonian.

Engraving of Kila Volcano in Hawaii, from "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842" via the Robert S. And Margaret A. Ames Collection of Illustrated Books.

Our relationship with Hawaii began with United States Exploring Expedition’s visit to the islands in 1840. The Expedition—now known as the Wilkes Expedition—was the first global circumnavigatory exploration made by the United States. Authorized during the presidency of John Quincy Adams and launched in 1838 under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, the Expedition lasted four years. Wilkes and his ships landed in Hawaii six years before the Smithsonian was founded in 1846; the tie that links us comes from the collections accumulated during the voyage.  The Expedition was designed not only to establish maritime navigation information, but also to document the people, places, flora and fauna encountered along the way.  Among the crew were eight scientists who were charged collecting cultural artifacts and scientific specimens; the Expedition returned with ship holds full, including many objects from Hawaii. King Kamehameha III provided support for the Expedition to make a nine-day reconnaissance of the Big Island of Hawaii, including a trip up the slopes of Mauna Loa to see the Kilauea volcano. The team obtained scientific and ethnographic specimens and samples for the collections that were brought back to the mainland.

When the Wilkes Expedition returned to the United States in 1842, officials gradually realized that there was no agency willing to, or capable of, housing the artifacts and specimens that had been collected. When the Smithsonian was founded in 1846 all parties agreed this new institution was the right repository for the legacy of the Wilkes Expedition. Thus began the collections of the Smithsonian, which today number 137 million strong, and so began our connection to Hawaii.

For more than a hundred years scientists and scholars from the Smithsonian have studied the unique ecology of Hawaii—its birds, plants and animals, its mountains and oceans, and the culture of its people from native Hawaiians to recent immigrants.

The Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) established its first presence on the islands in the 1950s with a satellite observatory station. The high mountains of Hawaii, its climate and a supportive university system made it the ideal location for astronomical observation. In 2003,  SAO built the first submillimeter array in the world on the top of the highest mountain in Hawaii, Mauna Kea, to measure gas, dust and small particles from outer space that provide clues to the birth and death of stars and the origins of the universe.

Mary Hagedorn of the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) has established a marine laboratory in conjunction with the University of Hawaii to help study and save coral reefs. Only a few weeks before my visit, the New York Times’ Science section featured Mary’s work, focusing on her pioneering efforts to cryogenically store coral sperm so that living coral can be restored where environmental conditions allow.

Researchers Adrienne Kaeppler and Greta Hansen of the National Museum of Natural History have long studied the indigenous culture of Hawaii, most recently investigating the origins of traditional Hawaiian bark cloth and developing ways to preserve this material.  Complementing this work, research by scholars at the National Museum of the American Indian and Konrad Ng, director of our Asian Pacific American Program, are examining the multicultural origins of Hawaiian identity and sharing their insights with the public through exhibitions and educational initiatives.

Our connections to Hawaii are further reinforced by many friends of the Smithsonian and through partner institutions who collaborate with us. Members of the Smithsonian family with strong ties to Hawaii include present and emeritus members of the Smithsonian National Board, Regent Steve Case (who was born there), and many donors.  Three of our Smithsonian Affiliates are found in Hawaii—we will be visiting the most recent addition, the Pacific Aviation Museum. The Smithsonian also collaborates on research with the University of Hawaii and the Bishop Museum, which has an outstanding collection of native Hawaiian artifacts.

It is these multiple ties and research programs that bring me to Hawaii, to see for myself the work of so many that thus far I have only learned about from afar and third-hand. The timing for our trip is particularly fortuitous because our visit to Mary Hagedorn’s laboratories will correspond with a phenomenon of nature, a coral spawn. I look forward with great anticipation to the visit.   My traveling companion is Johnny Gibbons, the Smithsonian’s press secretary for science.


Perhaps Hawaii is best understood when seen from the air. An archipelago (that also includes Midway, an unincorporated U.S. territory), Hawaii consists of eight  major islands (Hawaii, or the Big Island, Maui, Oahu, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Kauai and Niihau), several atolls, numerous smaller islets and undersea seamounts stretching almost 1,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Its easternmost island, the Big Island of Hawaii, is located 2,000 miles southwest of the coast of North America. Hawaii is also our southernmost state, lying below the Tropic of Cancer well south of the Florida Keys.

The islands exist because of the earth’s fluid molten core, which reaches the earth’s surface through boundaries between massive crustal plates. Movement of the plate boundaries over what is known as a “hot spot” promoted volcanic activity and magma flow through the crust and up through the sea, creating the craggy islands that rise above the windswept ocean. Below the sea, Hawaii can also be found in the form of seamounts, volcanic islands that have not grown to reach sea level. Hawaii’s tallest peak is Mauna Kea, rising majestically almost 14,000 feet above sea level and more than 33,000 feet above the sea floor, surpassing the height of Mount Everest.

Hawaii is a land of great natural beauty and remarkably diverse ecological habitats. It is believed that Hawaii was first occupied by humans migrating from Polynesia sometime around 300 BCE. Although Spanish explorers may have landed in the 1500s, the first documented European contact was when Captain James Cook visited on his first expedition in 1778. Cook came to Hawaii again on a second voyage in 1779 and was killed by Hawaiians who attacked his forces after an argument broke out between his crew and a local chief. Despite the conflict, news spread about the remarkable islands and by the 1800s many missionaries and fortune seekers from Europe and the United States flocked to the kingdom of Hawaii, at that time ruled by the House of Kamehameha.

"Death of Captain Cook." Oil on canvas by George Carter, ca. 1783 via Bishop Museum Archives.

The new settlers created plantations to take advantage of the rich volcanic soil and abundant rainfall. These plantations required labor and soon workers were imported from China, Japan and other parts of the globe. The presence of powerful plantation owners and so many non-Hawaiians led to inevitable conflict with the native Hawaiians. This eventually led to the downfall of the House of Kamehameha in 1893, when the monarchy was overthrown.* Subsequent native Hawaiian leaders were weakened and Hawaii was seized as a territory of the United States in 1898. In 1959, Hawaii became the most recent member of the United States. In 1993, our government issued a formal apology for the 1898 takeover.

Today Hawaii has a diverse population of more than one million that reflects the waves of people of different ethnicities who populated the state: 55 percent are Asian American, 24 percent are Caucasian and other groups and only 21 percent are Native Hawaii and Pacific Islanders.

Thursday, August 30, 75 degrees, sunny, light clouds with cool breezes

Up early for a live interview with Howard Dicus on “Hawaii News Now: Sunrise,” the morning news program on the local CBS affiliate. Howard, a popular morning television personality, was born in Baltimore and tells me before the interview how he loved to come to the Smithsonian as a child.

Howard has done his homework and asks several questions about SAO’s facility on Mauna Kea and Mary Hagedorn’s marine lab. We have an easygoing discussion and I am happy to have the opportunity to share the Smithsonian’s resources with the show’s viewers. The rest of the day is spent meeting with Smithsonian friends and donors. At a luncheon hosted by Smithsonian National Board member Al Landon, former CEO of the Bank of Hawaii; his successor Peter Ho; and Jeff Watanabe, an emeritus member of the SNB; I am presented with two leis. One is formed from a long green garland and I am told it is reserved for leaders or chiefs; when I later see a picture of native son President Barack Obama wearing the same kind of lei, I feel the honor even more keenly.

We are joined at the lunch by a number of Smithsonian staff who oversee research and programs in Hawaii, including Adrienne Kaeppler of the Natural History Museum; Konrad Ng, director of the Asian Pacific American Program; Roger Brissenden, deputy director of SAO; and Mary Hagedorn of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. We are all assisted by Kirsten Peterson Johannson, one of our outstanding staff from the Office of Advancement who has worked with the Bank of Hawaii to create a delightful atmosphere for our guests.

Following lunch I give a talk about the Smithsonian in general and its specific roles in Hawaii. We are strong partners with many of Hawaii’s cultural and scientific institutions and this is an opportunity for us to reinforce those relationships. At a later event, we have the opportunity to raise consciousness about the Smithsonian and its activities with a new group of friends brought together by Konrad and Maya Ng. Konrad is a native of Hawaii and a former member of the faculty of the University of Hawaii. He and Maya bring a special knowledge of the island and its people.

On the set of “Hawaii News Now: Sunrise.” Photo by Johnny Gibbons.

Next, SAO’s Submillimeter Array.

*See SN’s comment below.

Posted: 14 September 2012
About the Author:

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Since beginning his tenure in July 2008, Secretary Clough has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum. He has initiated long-range planning for the Institution that will define the Smithsonian’s focus for the future. More about Secretary Clough...

2 Responses to On the road in Hawaii I: The Secretary’s travel journal
    • sn
    • Great article! I love all Secretary Clough’s articles. One tiny correction/point of clarification. The House of Kamehameha ended before the overthrow in 1893. The last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani was not from the Kamehameha line. Not a big deal; I just noticed because I’m from Hawai’i. Thanks for posting this article!