Culture Clashes, Conservation, and Coconuts

Looking over the lawn at Shangri La’s Playhouse, Diamond Head, and the ocean. Keep in mind, this is only the guesthouse!

This summer, Jessica and I have had the pleasure of working at Shangri La to help preserve a beautiful example of Islamic interior architecture.  “What is Shangri La?,” you ask.  Why, it’s the lavish Honolulu home of early 20th century Newport socialite Doris Duke.  She created this sprawling five acre property at the base of Diamond Head and filled it with an exceptional collection of art from the far reaches of the Islamic world, including Syria, Iran, Morocco, Turkey, India, Spain and Egypt (just to name a few).  Here, American and traditional Hawaiian culture mingles with that of the Muslim world, as Shangri La serves the mission of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA) to promote the study, understanding, and preservation of Islamic art and culture.  Shangri La and WUDPAC have partnered for the past eight years to support this summer internship; previous interns completed the conservation of the newly-opened Damascus Room, the past two rounds have brought WUDPAC interns into the Syrian Room to conserve the ceiling and the mirrored doors, and now we have joined these esteemed colleagues to work on the wall elements in the Syrian Room.

The room was installed by Duke and her staff in the late 1970s, during which time extensive campaigns of restoration were carried out on many of the room’s elements.   She sought to create an entrancing space which would evoke the feeling of a traditional qa’a, or reception hall, that could be found in a wealthy 19th century Damascene home.  Brightly colored painted wood paneling, gilded surfaces, an awe-inspiring decorative wooden ceiling and a marble floor and fountain all serve to delight the senses and showcase the home’s prosperity and the owner’s fashionable taste.  Though the room is a pastiche, created with elements taken from several different Damascene homes, Duke arranged the room in the typical style of a qa’a, with a lowered entrance with a fountain (an ‘ataba), a raised marble seating platform (a tazar) and a raised ceiling supported by a whitewashed wall inset with decorative windows. The overall feeling of this arrangement is light, airy and inviting, while the color scheme is designed to dazzle the viewer.

The large chamber of the Syrian Room.

Shangri La’s seaside locale and semi-open air design, along with Hawaii’s warm, humid, and salty climate, means that its world class collection of Islamic art will need vigilant conservation care.  The painted wooden elements in the room had several persistent condition issues including flaking paint, subsurface insect damage and structural issues caused by wood’s natural tendency to respond dimensionally to changes in the environment.  Our goals this summer included mapping the current condition of each section of the room, to serve as baseline documentation for future comparison, and to address the immediate issue of flaking paint.  We slowly worked our way through the room, documenting the decorative panels, cabinets and calligraphic cartouches that adorn the walls, and consolidating flaking paint where necessary.

As Jessica and I will be specializing in paintings conservation as we move into our next year of the program, this summer gave us the opportunity to work on an unorthodox object in our field.  It also offered us the opportunity to enhance our hand, observational, and problem-solving skills, which will serve us well in the coming years.  As the summer comes to a close, we have been very grateful to work in a wonderful institution, to live on this beautiful island, to contribute to the preservation of a unique example of Syrian interior architecture, and to experience the fantastic and surreal culture clash that is Shangri La.



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