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Hawaii Members Protest ‘Insulting’ Treatment of Icon

Hawaii’s two House Members wrote a letter to the Architect of the Capitol last week asking him to correct “disrespectful characterizations” of the King Kamehameha statue made by Hill staff and move the likeness to a more prominent position in Statuary Hall.

Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D) and Ed Case (D) expressed concern to Architect Alan Hantman that the statue of “by far the most prominent figure in the history of Hawaii” is being denigrated by both its obscured locale and staffers’ ignorance of the statue’s — and Kamehameha’s — story.

The bronze Kamehameha figure rests in the southeast corner of Statuary Hall — behind another row of figures and partially obstructed by the old House chamber’s columns. In a statement, Abercrombie and Case questioned the purported structural concerns offered to explain the statue’s placement. It is reportedly the heaviest object in the collection, and therefore the corner is the only place capable of supporting it.

“Kamehameha has essentially been isolated for 34 years,” the two wrote. “It is appropriate that we ask whether, in fact, Kamehameha’s location is exclusively structural. If not, we believe it is fair that Kamehameha have his turn at a position of prominence in the front lines of the statues in Statuary Hall.”

The AOC ackowledged getting the letter late last week. “The AOC appreciates receiving the Congressmen’s letter,” spokeswoman Eva Malecki said. “We will work with their offices so that accurate information is disseminated about their state statues and address their concerns.”

Abercrombie and Case also lament what they characterize as all too frequent insults about the image made by aides giving staff-led tours. They related to Hantman an incident that one of their staffers observed earlier this month while conducting a tour with a Hawaii TV reporter. A staffer from another office reportedly said:

“King Kamehameha is kinda an interesting statue. I’ll just tell you the story behind it. He was the first king to unite all the Hawaiian Islands under a peaceable kingdom. And of course, King Kamehameha was honored by the Hawaiian people by being placed in Statuary Hall. But when they first sent the statue over they discovered that it wasn’t wearing any clothing.

“Congress was very upset and sent the statue back and said put some clothes on it. So Hawaii took it back and they dressed it as you see here. But even then Congress wasn’t happy because he wasn’t that decently dressed, he’s not really covered and so they decided to put him back here as punishment. They stuck him back here in this corner where nobody would notice him.”

According to the two Members, the TV reporter recorded the event and it was broadcast throughout the islands on the evening news July 15.

If it was an isolated event, Abercrombie and Case said they would have simply taken it up with the staffer’s boss, but they went on to note that other aides were heard last week making similar remarks, including that the statue was “sent back three times because he was morally indecent” and “put back in the back because he was naked.”

Those statements, they wrote, are not only factually inaccurate but “highly insulting.”

The AOC oversees the Capitol Guide Service, which runs its own tours (the so-called “red coats”) and trains Hill staffers to give tours to constituents. Before giving tours, aides are encouraged to attend the one-day training. The guide service also offers extensive additional classes on the building’s art, history and architecture, but Members’ offices run their tour programs independently.

Ten years after Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, the islands sent Kamehameha’s likeness to the Capitol to honor him for his role in unifying the islands under one government during the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the two Members said.

It was put in the back corner of Statuary Hall, where it remains.

“Anecdotally, at least, the official position has been that Kamehameha was located there for structural reasons; that, as what has been represented to be the heaviest statue in the collection, it was necessary to place him there and that no other location in the Hall would suffice,” Abercrombie and Case wrote.

They suspect, however, that Kamehameha is back there because he’s “different.” His height and non-Western attire, which depicts the traditional garb of the high chiefs of ancient Hawaii, along with his many leis — remnants of more than three decades of annual ceremonies honoring him — make him “easily the most striking” in the collection, according to an official guidebook of the 97 statues in the collection.