The History Lost in the Maui Wildfires

3 minute read

As wildfires have ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui in one of the state’s deadliest natural disasters of all time, residents are bracing themselves for the massive rebuilding efforts to come. But many of the artifacts and objects that tell the island’s history that were lost to the blaze will not be able to be recreated.

Historic preservation experts in the town of Lahaina, one of the hardest hit areas, are still trying to figure out the full extent of the damage, but right now the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees several local historic sites, believe a majority of the collections overseen by the group—thousands of objects—have been lost. They are working off the assumption that anything made of paper, wood, ceramics, or fabric will not survive the fires. 

“We’ve lost four museums,” says Kimberly Flook, Deputy Executive Director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, out of at least 14 museums and sites the group oversees. “If you're into environmentalism, if you're into surfing, if you're into history, something was lost in all those ways.”

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Wo Hing Museum & Cookhouse—a social hall for the Chinese immigrants who helped build the tunnels and irrigation systems through the mountains—completely burned down. Baldwin Home, known as the oldest home still standing before the fires in Maui, no longer has a roof and the artifacts inside are believed to be in ruins. Old Lahaina prison—where people who were convicted of crimes were sent at the peak of the whaling era in the mid-1800s—lost its wooden gatehouse and wooden jail cell buildings. At the old Lahaina courthouse, the center of government for the region, everything but the walls is gone.

Among the prized possessions believed to be lost by Lahaina Restoration Foundation staff is an original native Hawaiian kingdom flag. On August 12, 1898, shortly after Hawaii was annexed to the U.S., the Hawaiian kingdom flag was lowered and replaced with the American flag. Flook says the flag was a great conversation-starter with visitors because “many Americans don't realize that the path to statehood for Hawaii was not a choice.”

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Objects that show how native Hawaiians made a living for themselves are also believed to be lost, like featherwork, furniture, photographs, and kapa, a type of fabric used to make rugs, skirts, and blankets. It’s not only indigenous history that’s at stake, but objects representing the nationalities of people who worked on the plantations in the late 19th century through the mid-20th century—Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Spanish, and Puerto Rican. Museum staffers are hopeful that artifacts made from stone and some types of metal will survive the fires.

Flook says that while some physical objects are now gone, many Native Hawaiians still remember their histories and are working to find new ways to tell their stories to visitors. As she puts it: “We've lost physical pieces of history. We have not lost our history, our culture. And we won’t.”

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