A Trip Through Thousands of Years of History

March 19, 2017 Elizabeth M. San Nicolas


The Hagåtña renaissance is well underway with the gleaming new Guam Museum at its center. The grand opening is still a few more months away, as the exhibit gallery is still undergoing revisions. In the meantime, the museum is preparing a permanent exhibition, "I Hinanao-ta: Our Journey," which features the 3,500-plus year history of the people of Guam. TGM recently talked to its director, Dominica Tolentino, on how the museum is progressing, as well as what we can look forward to in the future.


Q: I Hale’-ta: Desde Åntes Esta I Mamaila’, the previous exhibit, told of the 90-year journey to open Guam’s dedicated museum. Can you tell us about your favorite part of the exhibit, and why it’s special to you?

A: There are lots of different things I really like about this exhibit, and putting it together with our team, I learned a lot about the museum as a historic institution and its place in our island's larger history over the last 90 years. Personally, I'm always drawn to old objects and old photographs, and the exhibit features a lot of those. Just seeing old photos of life on Guam makes me realize how much has changed, and yet, how much stays the same. We still do a lot of the same things our grandparents and great-grandparents did before us. The Reimar photographs from the late 1800s (perhaps the oldest photos taken on Guam) are especially intriguing. Some of those landscape formations are still visible today. People mistake the Western Caroline islanders in the photos for Chamorros, but there was a Carolinian community in central Guam (Santa Cristina) at that time. There are also pictures of Chamorro homes and Chamorro people that give a glimpse of lifestyles and architecture. It is a fascinating look at how people lived back then. I also love seeing the old, pre-Latte era clay pottery sherds with their lime-incised markings. They are important pieces of evidence of Guam's more ancient culture from thousands of years ago. Objects like these continue to inspire, especially artists who try to incorporate these old designs into their artwork. Dr. Ramon Sablan's medical tools are also pretty neat to see. Dr. Sablan, an educator, musician, and Guam's first Chamorro physician, had real vision about the importance of creating a museum to preserve objects of Guam's history for Guam's people. 



Q: Who are the key people behind the museum’s historical exhibits? Have they worked at other museums? How are exhibits conceived? Who selects the theme?

A: Right now, our exhibits are conceived by our team, who all have varying backgrounds and experiences working with collections, exhibitions, historical research, graphic design, marketing, and budgets. We are working with Shannon Murphy, Rita Nauta, and Nathalie Pereda from Guampedia; Lynn Leon Guerrero and David DeFant from SEARCH, Inc., and Michael Lerner and David De La Torre from Community Arts International—museum experts, especially with exhibitions, planning, and management. SEARCH are archeologists who have helped us with artifact selection and conservation issues. Guampedia assists us with research and educational programming. Ron Castro from Galaide is our museum designer and fabrication consultant, along with graphic designer Gerry Dizon. Cliff Guzman and myself have worked with museums before, Guzman with the Heard Museum, and I have worked with the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Asian Pacific American Initiatives, and their Museum on Main Street program. The Guam Museum also has a team in place, who have been caring for the collections and doing exhibitions over the years: Simeon Palomo, Colasita Gumabon, Alea Dugan, and Javier Manibusan. 



Q: Can people with interesting Guam artifacts contact the museum to learn more about them? If you don’t have a historical expert on hand at the moment, is this perhaps a future service the museum will offer?

A: Certainly, if people have questions about their artifacts we at the museum can try and help answer them. We can also help by referring them to other individuals they can contact directly, or point them to resources they can use to help them with their research. Among our staff, we've got some good local connections with scholars and other researchers, and also in institutions off-island that can help us identify objects or provide historical information.  


Q: What kinds of exhibits can the public expect to see? How often will they rotate?

A: Our mission is to foster a greater understanding of Chamorro culture, and the art, history, and natural environment of Guam. This gives us ample space to plan and offer a wide variety of exhibits and community programming. Certainly in the permanent exhibition you will be able to see examples of history, art, and nature with a focus on Chamorro cultural history. Because we are the only institution that features Chamorro culture at this scale, it behooves us to have exhibitions and programming that highlight Chamorro perspectives. However, we are also a community museum, and we anticipate being able to offer other exciting programming and exhibits that highlight or are of interest to other cultural groups, or artwork, and science. We anticipate our exhibits will rotate every 12 to 16 weeks.



Q: What upcoming events are most interesting or exciting for you personally?

A: Coming in March, just in time for Chamorro Month, is our next exhibition, which explores notions of Chamorro cultural identity. It will feature a lot of things that inform our understanding of Chamorro culture and how identity changes over time. It will also have things that celebrate Chamorro identity and the different ways people represent or express or challenge who they are and how they understand themselves as "Chamorro."

We are also planning an exhibition of the gifts received during the recent Festival of Pacific Arts, and later in the fall, an exhibition of the Manila Galleon Trade route (La Nao de China) and influences from Spain, Mexico, and the Philippines on Chamorro culture.


Q: Will the museum host traveling exhibits, as well?

A: We hope that once the museum has been accredited with the American Alliance of Museums, we will be able to host traveling exhibitions from other museums nationwide. We would also like to pursue opportunities with international museums. There is a group called PIMA, or Pacific Island Museums Association, of which the Guam Museum is a member, and we can partner with those folks, as well as our neighbor museums in the Philippines. Ideally, we would like to get the museum fully outfitted first before we approach other institutions about traveling exhibitions. 

Occasionally we may have other organizations present exhibitions at the museum through special arrangements. 


Q: Are there plans to tie the museum into the greater historical area of Plaza de España? With walking tours, exhibits, a website, etc., as a tourist attraction and educational destination for school field trips?

A: Definitely we want the museum to be central to visitors coming to our island that are looking for a place to learn about the history and culture of Guam. The museum's location next to the historic ruins of the Plaza de España, the church's Agana cathedral-basilica, and the seat of government at the Guam Legislature, ensures that the museum is positioned as a tourist attraction and center of learning for Guam's people. Already, schools are arranging field trips to see our exhibit and take advantage of our educational programming. It's a comfortable space to visit and enjoy the views, grab some coffee or a snack, do a little shopping for Guam-centric items, and learn a bit of history, or see things you didn't know we had here on Guam. Schools also take advantage of being so near other historical sites and often include visits to the Plaza and Chamorro Village after they visit with us.

We do have a website (www.guammuseum.org) and use social media to try and connect with the public, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday, closed Mondays and some holidays. 

We also have a great outdoor stage that we've been using to feature movies in the park, which is a really popular activity for families. We would like to expand our offerings and include music or dance performances. We've used it as such during FestPac last May/June, as well as for the Guam International Film Festival back in November. The Guam Territorial Band is also one of our partners, and they will have occasional performances at the museum as well. They did some of our holiday programming last December.



Q: What are some of the future plans for the museum, short term and long term?

A: Our future plans include getting that permanent exhibition complete and having our official opening of the entire museum. We also will be starting our collections management pilot program with the assistance of SEARCH, Inc., our consultants who will work with our staff to develop policy for accessioning, cataloguing, and de-accessioning the collections so we know exactly what materials belong to the museum and where they are. We will be installing new shelving units into the new museum as well, and once this program is in place, we can start looking into transferring materials over from our current storage facility at the DNA building. We will also be able to start accepting things that need to be turned over from the archeological consulting firms that have been doing work at various construction sites.

We're also working toward getting accredited with the American Alliance of Museums. We have our strategic plan already, which is the first step. Accreditation will open opportunities for us to partner with other institutions and maybe bring some traveling exhibits here, but also will help repatriate items that are in other museum's collections that should be returned to Guam.

We also want to build up our internship and volunteer programs to get students and other folks involved with the museum in various capacities, from helping with collections to acting as docents, doing media work, or helping fill other needs.

We also want to work ultimately on helping the museum become self-sustaining so it can continue to offer quality humanities-based and cultural programming for our community. This involves getting grants, boosting our admissions, retail and cafe sales, and working with the Guam Museum Foundation to secure memberships and funding from individuals or corporate entities, who are interested in supporting the museum. 

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