When an independent filmmaker arrived in town to do a video story on the historic Honoka‘a People’s Theater, he turned to the UH Hilo Heritage Center for archived photos and historical perspective.
When Eileen “Momi” Naughton was first hired in 2011 as coordinator of the Heritage Center run by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, her goal was to develop a regional interpretive center in Honoka‘a where the local people were empowered to record their own history. She spent a good part of her first years at the center setting up an extensive archival collection on the history of Honoka‘a, a former sugar plantation town on the Hāmākua coast of Hawai‘i Island, and the surrounding region.
“When I gave my presentation to the public before being hired, I told them that I would not interpret their history and culture but rather be a conduit for them to explore their own stories,” she says. “In other words, my role is not to say this is what your heritage is about, but rather to help the community interpret what they want to say about themselves.”
As Naughton went about her work, the community became more and more engaged in the center and in taking ownership of their past. Now the center is considered an integral part of the local community, and Naughton is viewed as the archivist of the community’s collective knowledge. When someone wants to be sure their photos or memories of days gone by are kept safe for future generations, they seek her out.
A filmmaker comes to town
So it makes perfect sense that when independent filmmaker Andrew Lampard recently arrived in Honoka‘a town to do a video story on the historic Honoka‘a People’s Theater, one of the key people he consulted and interviewed was Momi Naughton.
“(The theater) is almost like a living organism, like it has all these memories trapped inside,” says Naughton in an interview in the video, “The Last Cinema in Paradise,” released through The New York Times.
In addition to excerpts from the interview with Naughton, the 11-minute film contains several archived photos provided by the Heritage Center.
“I think preserving our historical spaces like the Honoka‘a People’s Theater preserves the integrity of our area,” says Naughton in an interview for UH Hilo Stories. “Historically, (the theater is) a very significant building.”
The Honoka‘a People’s Theater was built in 1930, when Honoka‘a was a bustling sugar plantation town with bakeries, barbers, pool halls and saloons. The town had three large theatres, the biggest of which was the Honoka‘a People’s Theatre, built by the Tanimoto family. The 525 seat movie house was packed regularly.
“The theater was the crown of Honoka‘a town for many, many years after it was built, and it still is,” says Naughton. “People come into the Heritage Center and talk about having worked at the theater or watching the first film they ever saw there. It is a hub of memories for a lot of people.”
In the late 1980s, local physician Dr. Tawn Keeney purchased the theater and closed it as he undertook a long and arduous process of renovation. Now reopened, it is a symbol of the regeneration of Honoka‘a town 20 years after the closing of the sugar plantation. The theater once again shows films, hosts community events and music festivals, and recently opened a café where locals and visitors gather to connect and enjoy a bit of local history.
“We’re so, so lucky Dr. Keeney purchased it and has kept it going,” says Naughton. “It really is a place where people gather.”
Preserving a community’s heritage
Naughton is an alumna of UH Hilo who received her bachelor of arts in liberal studies with an emphasis in music. She received her master of arts in anthropology from Western Washington University, and her doctor of philosophy in visual communications with a concentration on museum and heritage communications from Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.
She has extensive experience in curation in Hawai‘i. She has been a curator for Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, taught interpretive skills at Kapio‘olani Community College and museum theory and museology at Western Washington University and UH Hilo, and was director of Waimea’s Anna Ranch Heritage Center. She has taught a course through the UH Hilo Hawaiian studies department on heritage preservation.
Naughton brings her experience to one of her current projects, a group collaboration to help preserve the historically important town of Honoka‘a through adding several of its buildings to the National Historic Register. The group is currently doing an analysis of possible additions to the register and the Honoka‘a People’s Theater is at the top of the list.
“I’m helping a group that is an ad hoc committee trying to preserve the town and they’ve been working with Dr. Ross Stephenson from Honolulu, the former keeper of the historic sites for the state,” she explains.
In such efforts to preserve the historic and cultural places of importance in Honoka‘a, the UH Hilo Heritage Center is a vital resource. “We have old newspaper articles and old photographs that we are able to provide to help with that effort to show the significance of these places,” Naughton says.
Long term goals include the hope to create an entire historic district. “Honoka‘a town is the most preserved wood frame plantation town in all of Hawai‘i and it’s like stepping back in time,” she says.
Applied learning for UH Hilo students
Naughton is quick to point out that students are also helping to preserve the area’s history.
“The Heritage Center is really set up as an applied learning center for students at UH Hilo,” she explains. “It’s part of an opportunity to get students excited about historical preservation.”
Students routinely conduct oral histories, preserve old photos and documents, and learn curatorial skills at the center.
“Students that are interested in this sort of work can do either internships or work-study or they can get credits and take directed study here at the Heritage Center,” she says.
Naughton also teaches courses at the center such as Museology (ANTH 470, 3 credits) as an applied learning class. Two of her former students are museum directors, one in Washington state and one in Alaska.
The Heritage Center is located at the UH Hilo North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center in Honoka‘a, Hawai‘i Island, and is open to the public. Hours are Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Saturdays 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.
Kara Nelson, a senior double majoring in English and Communication and an intern in the Office of the Chancellor, contributed.