Stuart Ching '81
Preserving Hawaii's Heritage
Each year on January 17, dozens of people, many of them native Hawaiians, gather in Honolulu for a vigil commemorating the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. The gathering place is 'Iolani Palace, the last residence of Hawaii's monarchs. Now a historic museum, the palace remains for many a symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty, and tensions can run high during these demonstrations. The man charged with the task of safeguarding the palace and its collections is palace curator Stuart Ching '81.
What led him to this role at one of Hawaii's most important museums? Ironically, perhaps, it took Ching, who double-majored in art history and religion, three years in Gambier and a year abroad in London to appreciate what was in his own backyard.
Ching's fascination with historic buildings and objects began to emerge almost as soon as he hit campus as a first-year student. "What I liked about Kenyon was its sense of history and tradition. Not only were the buildings historic, but they've also preserved a lot of the college's traditions."
The rituals of initiation into campus life-signing the Book of Matriculation, singing traditional Kenyon songs-resonated deeply with the young Ching, whose participation in the Episcopal Church back home gave Kenyon a familiar feel. By the time he discovered Professor Eugene Dwyer's introductory art history course sophomore year, a junior year abroad began to seem inevitable.
Ching, who speaks quietly and deliberately, explains that the opportunity to "see things up close instead of in a textbook" made his year studying in London a seminal experience. "In England, things are a lot older, but it made me realize that my own hometown had a lot of significant buildings, and it gave me an appreciation of Hawaii's architectural heritage."
Ching's job at 'Iolani Palace requires a great deal of cultural sensitivity, and Ching credits his own sensibilities in part to his study of religion at Kenyon. "Because the monarchy no longer exists, the Hawaiian kings and queens have been elevated to a sacred status in a way," he explains. "You have to be very sensitive to cultural backgrounds and beliefs, and having taken so many [religion] courses helps with sensitivity."
He also received ample lessons about cultural sensitivity outside the classroom at Kenyon. "I was one of about a dozen minority students at the time," recalls Ching, whose great-great grandparents emigrated to Hawaii from China, and whose grandmother was born under the monarchy. As a non-white, he was sometimes mistaken for a foreigner and invited to the international student dinners, he remembers with a chuckle.
Volunteering at 'Iolani Palace after college led quickly to an entry-level job there. After three years, he took a position at Honolulu's Bishop Museum, Hawaii's largest, which focuses on the natural and cultural history of the islands. In February 2003, he returned to 'Iolani Palace, this time as its curator.
While the week leading up to January 17 can be pretty intense, most of Ching's time at the Palace is spent in the attic office he shares with storage space for the museum's many artifacts. The piles of paper on his desk bespeak the juggling act his job entails, including managing the collection, developing exhibitions and public programs, and consulting on security measures. Occasionally, Ching has even played host to such visiting dignitaries as the Prince and Princess of Japan and Terry Waite, the journalist who had been held hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Ching remembers one visitor especially fondly. The Speaker of the House of Hawaii's legislature asked him to show a visiting Speaker of the House around the palace. The guest, who had slipped into the casualness Hawaii seems to invite and arrived clad in a floral print shirt, spoke with a familiar accent. He turned out to be the Speaker of the House of England's Parliament. A month later, when museum business took Ching back to the country that had played such a vital role in nurturing his love of buildings and objects, the Speaker returned the favor, affording Ching rare inside views of London's ancient buildings.
Nonetheless, Ching says that "hunting down objects"-the ongoing efforts he oversees to retrieve royal artifacts sold off at the time of takeover-is the most "fun part of the job."
"One of the rewarding things about this job is you have this grave responsibility of caring for things that mean a lot to people here," says Ching. "It's like Christmas every time something comes in."
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