Field Museum aims to shake off misconceptions about Hula dancing

Exhibit educates visitors about the real Hula and Hawaiian Islanders’ connections to Chicago.

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Kahookele Napuahinano Sumberg, whose family is originally from Hawaii, stands in front of a display case for the Field Museum’s new exhibit, “Chicago’s Legacy Hula.”

Kahookele Napuahinano Sumberg, whose family is originally from Hawaii, stands in front of a display case for the Field Museum’s new exhibit, “Chicago’s Legacy Hula.”

Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

On the map at the entrance to the Field Museum’s new exhibit, the Hawaiian Islands are tiny, almost like a scattering of breadcrumbs in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

The exhibit itself, “Chicago’s Legacy Hula,” is tiny too, taking up a single room in the sprawling museum. The exhibit is tightly focused on Hula — a dance, a way of life, a conversation with ancestors — that is largely misunderstood outside of Hawaii.

“People don’t know Hula. … [Disney’s] Lilo & Stitch, grass skirts, coconut bras — I saw a lot of that when I was growing up,” said Kahookele Napuahinano Sumberg, who is a co-curator of the exhibit, which opens to the public Friday.

Sumberg, who is of Hawaiian descent but grew up in Chicago, said she’s been learning Hula since she was a small child — and is still learning it.

“It’s a never-ending journey,” she said.

The exhibit, as the title suggests, also celebrates Hawaiians and Hawaiian music in Chicago. A huge flat-screen TV dominates the exhibit, featuring Sumberg and others performing Hula with the city’s downtown skyline as a backdrop.

You’ll also learn, for example, that the city is a hub for Hawaiian music. Zachary Pali Jr. was a Chicago-based musician originally from Moloka’i, who, during the late 1800s, toured the United States with a vaudeville performer, Lizzie Wallace, playing in 130 or so cities.

The Hawaiian king, Kalakaua, is believed to be the first monarch anywhere to visit the United States, including Chicago. He arrived here in 1875, according to the exhibit.

There are displays of hand-built Hawaiian instruments, including drums crafted from coconut palm wood and necklaces made of feathers, silk, glass beads and animal teeth.

And there are stories of early Hula performances in the city, during which one rowdy patron reportedly yelled, “Take it off!”

That ignorance hasn’t entirely gone away.

“I grew up with people asking me, ‘Do your parents live in huts back home?’” Sumberg said.

The exhibit runs through March 9, 2025.

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