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Pieces of Lahaina’s past get a much-deserved cleaning

By Staff | Aug 6, 2020

Lahaina Restoration Foundation Docent Stuart Sharp cleans a lamp outside the Baldwin Home Museum.

LAHAINA – With a click, the small vacuum whines to life before slowly being dialed down to the perfect power level: just enough to lift dirt and dust off, but not too strong that the surface being cleaned is damaged. This attention to detail carries throughout the work to protect and preserve the pieces of history in the care of Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

While the museums are closed, “behind the scenes work” is in full swing. LRF museum staff have adjusted their roles and are busy cleaning and preserving LRF’s collection of historic artifacts. These tangible pieces of history carry stories from all the eras of Lahaina’s history, from the stone tools of old Hawaii, to the household items that fill the rooms of the Baldwin Home Museum and even handmade tools used by those who lived in the plantation camps.

This program is made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the federal CARES Act. LRF also extends a special thank you to all the individual donors who supported the cleaning project.

With the cleaning work overseen by Chris Conley, staff members have learned not only the proper conservation techniques but patience as well.

“Many hands make quick work,” as some would say.

Kalapana Kollars, Lahaina Restoration Foundation cultural director, records artifact data for entry into a database.

Special tools, techniques and an eye for detail come together in the process of protecting the artifacts of Lahaina’s past.

“The goal is to preserve the integrity of the artifacts without restoring them to a ‘like-new’ state,” said Conley. “It takes a careful hand and tons of patience to clean away just enough while not damaging the piece.”

As staff worked their way through different mediums such as wood, cloth and metals, they put to use a diverse range of conservation strategies. Brushes and vacuums are usually the first tool to be utilized, removing any dirt, dust or other debris from the surface of the artifact. In difficult to reach areas, sometimes a small hand blower is used to push the dust out.

With wooden artifacts, the next step is to use mineral spirits to lift dirt that has been ground into the surface. The application must be very precise, so as not to damage any painted or lacquered areas.

With metal objects, the main concern is often to stop any active rust reactions. This is done with a museum grade de-corroder and a metal bristle brush – the brush being used to abrade the rusted area so the de-corroder can reach and stop the reaction.

Docent Etina Hafoka cleans a wooden artifact at Hale Aloha.

With all of these strategies, patience is a key component to success. Often artifacts are made up of multiple mediums, and each must be handled in its own way.

The up close and personal work has left staff members with a sense of personal fulfillment as well as some new insights into certain artifacts. Stuart Sharp, docent at the Baldwin Home and Wo Hing Museums, turned over one of the old blankets on display in the Baldwin Home to reveal over a dozen hand repaired areas. “Today, most people would just go to the store and buy a new one. In the old days, they had to make everything last as long as possible,” he said.

At another work table, an old doctor’s bag is gently vacuumed, pulling the dust out without damaging the fraying material. The bag brought to mind the story of how Dr. Baldwin traveled all over Maui to distribute smallpox vaccines after an outbreak began on Oahu in 1853. With his diligence, Maui only suffered 200 deaths from the disease, compared to over 12,000 between Oahu and the Big Island.

Revealing the stories of the past can be difficult, as old places have disappeared with time and progress. While it may be impossible to recreate these lost places, the historic objects from those time periods give us a personal view into the history of our town.

Contact LRF at (808) 661-3262, e-mail info@lahainarestoration.org or visit www.lahainarestoration.org for information on Lahaina’s historic sites and upcoming events.