It’s a sweltering summer morning at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and I’ve just stepped foot inside the newly opened Duke Kahanamoku exhibit. What I see is striking. Stretched across the exhibit stands a sweeping collection of artifacts, tall wooden surfboards, and interactive games telling the story of one of Hawaii’s favorite sons. This year would mark the 125th birthday of Duke, and the Bishop Museum has spent the past 12 months carefully curating and combing through the many chapters of his life.
Lucky for me, I’ve been offered a private tour of the exhibit courtesy of Michael Wilson, one of its designers. With a rigid jaw and eyes that light up when talking about Duke, Michael walks me through Duke’s life and discusses the process of curating the exhibit.
“This was such a fun project to work on. It took us about a year from start to finish, but the end result is something that I think we’re all really proud to have created,” explains Michael. “Duke was such a special person to the people of Hawaii. We were all really honored to have been able to create this project honoring one of the great ambassadors of aloha.”
While most of us are familiar with his easy smile, sleek-yet-powerful frame, and his reputation as the father of modern surfing, this exhibit goes well beyond the mere highlights of Duke’s life and delves into who the man really was. Well before Duke brought surfing to the U.S. and Australia, he was busy taking the swimming world by storm and collecting more Olympic medals than you could shake a fist at—many of which are on display today.
As you would expect, the exhibit details Duke’s voyage to Australia and the continental United States where he helped introduce surfing to the world. Because of his prowess in the pool and his reputation for practically walking on water, there were a number of larger-than-life stories about Duke, some of which are true. While working as a lifeguard in Southern California in 1925, for example, a fishing boat capsized, dumping many of those onboard into the Pacific Ocean. Duke, whose experience in the water was unmatched, rescued eight fishermen on his own, leaving the Newport Police Chief to call his efforts that day “superhuman.” Other stories, like one in which Duke fought a massive eel in Southern California, weren’t rooted in any actual truth.
There are also chapters of Duke’s life that are new to many of us. In the 1930s, he ran a gas station and then served 13 terms as the sheriff of Honolulu. There’s even a US Supreme Court decision in his name. Duke’s desk from his time spent as sheriff is on display in the exhibit, along with his daily ‘to do’ list, which included scheduled meetings and blocked-off time for afternoon swims and naps. Despite his status as one of the most famous Hawaiians of his era, Duke struggled financially for much of his life. It wasn’t until he lent his name in product endorsements during his golden years that he found financial wealth. But, as many a wise man have pointed out, money doesn’t always equate to happiness.
Whether rich or poor, Duke was always known for possessing a glow, a love of life, and a hospitable warmth. Simply put, he was full of aloha. And those who knew him or those who have adequately researched into his character can attest that this, much more than his ability to out-surf or out-swim other people, was his greatest quality.
“One of the most fascinating things we learned about Duke wasn’t the fact that he is largely considered to be one of the most influential surfers of all time, or the fact that he was one of the most iconic swimmers in American history, but rather it was his sense of the aloha spirit,” said Michael. “His life is full of one amazing chapter after another, but it was the way he conducted himself, his passion for life and the aloha spirit, that really made an impact.”
“If a visitor were to learn just one thing about Duke from this exhibit, what would it be?” I ask.
“That’s easy,” he quickly says. “It’s that Duke was full of aloha. Aloha was his creed.”
The Duke Kahanamoku exhibit will run at the Bishop Museum until November 30, 2015.