Guam Museum - 90 years in the making
The Guam Museum, located at Skinner Plaza in the heart of Hagåtña, Guam, is a government of Guam owned museum focused on the history of Guam. It’s official name is Senator Antonio M. Palomo Guam Museum and Educational Facility.
The Guam Museum reflects the diversity, creativity, and resilience of Guam and the Mariana Islands. It is hoped to encourage people to engage in dialogue, to share multiple perspectives and experiences, and debate issues that concern us all today.
Although the Guam Museum is a new building, the idea of creating a museum for Guam started 90 years ago. The earliest printed record of people making plans for a new museum dates back to 1926. The Guam Teachers Association, led by Ramon Sablan, a teacher best known as the author of the “Guam Hymn,” asked residents and friends of Guam to start collecting their antiques and other artifacts for a museum that would protect their history and Chamorro culture.
The editor of the Guam Recorder, one of the earliest publications printed and circulated on Guam, also called for the opening of a museum. People were worried that the children were losing their connection to their history as they were, at the same time, living as a territory under a strict US Naval Government.
From 1924 to 1926, the Honolulu-based Bishop Museum employed amateur archeologist Hans Hornbostel to collect specimens from Guam and the northern Mariana Islands. Hornbostel, working along with his wife Gertrude Hornbostel, shipped hundreds of artifacts—some more than 3,000 years old—including pottery, fishhooks, latte stones (stone pillars) and even human skeletal remains, to Hawai`i. A Guam museum was seen as a way to ensure that these items could be returned and that the documents and objects important to the history and pre-history of the Chamorro people could be protected for future generations.
The Guam Museum was first operated by the newly formed American Legion Mid-Pacific Post 1 on Guam, which opened the doors of the museum in 1932. US Naval Governor Edmund Root authorized the use of a small building at the Plaza de España in Hagåtña for its home.
Hiram Elliott served as the first director and Joaquin T. Aguon as the first curator. Elliott appealed to the public to see “the most interesting and curious artifacts of the ancient Chamorro civilization.”
The Legion operated the museum for three years, offering tours for transient visitors to Guam until 1936 when the museum was formally turned over to the naval government at its insistence.
The Navy then recruited Margaret Higgins, a naval officer’s wife, as the museum’s curator. From 1937 to 1941, Agueda Iglesias Johnston was the museum committee member in charge of the ancient Chamorro collections. From these simple beginnings the museum underwent several transformations.
The onset of World War II and the occupation of Guam by Japanese Imperial forces saw many of the artifacts removed from the museum and taken to Japan as souvenirs. The building itself was destroyed from heavy bombing during the American reoccupation of Guam in 1944. Some items from the museum’s collections were recovered during the postwar reconstruction of the island but no immediate plans were made to rebuild the museum itself at the time.
However, in 1949, a Monuments and Museum Committee, headed by G. W. Brookhardt, was set up to discuss the re-establishment of the Guam Museum. In 1951, Guam’s first appointed civilian Governor Carlton Skinner, placed the Guam Museum under the Department of Land Management.
His successor, Governor Ford Elvidge, reorganized and renamed the group as the Parks and Monuments Committee and tasked the Guam Women’s Club and the Guam Historical Club with opening a new Guam Museum.
Museum opens in the Garden House, 1954
Through the efforts of the two groups the museum re-opened in 1954 at the Garden House in the Plaza de España, and staffed it with volunteers. Thelma Glenn was appointed as museum attendant in 1955, and was hired full-time in 1957 until her retirement in 1976. Most of Guam’s school children during this time fondly recall Glenn during museum field trips.
In 1960, Governor Richard Lowe transferred the Guam Museum to the Guam Public Library System, under the direction by Magdalena Taitano. Two years later, a large portion of the collections was destroyed by Typhoon Karen, but people were still interested in what the museum, though deemed inadequate, had to offer. In 1965, Speaker Carlos P. Taitano of the Guam Legislature proposed the construction of a two-story Spanish style building to house the Guam Museum. He said there were 3,220 objects and documents in the collection at that time.
In 1969, under Governor Manuel L. Guerrero, a public law designated the Guam Museum as the official depository and custodian of Guam artifacts. The museum remained active in its Garden House location as well as the Guam Public Library throughout the 1970s and 1980s, slowly increasing its collections and holding several public exhibits.
Laura Souder, attached to the museum since her childhood days through the work of her father, Paul Souder and the Guam Historic Society, became an official curator and director for a time, followed by William Hernandez, and then Rita Franquez.
Two other important curators of the Guam Museum were Anthony “Tony” Ramirez and Joey San Agustin. Both did important work to tell many of the stories of Guam History and the Chamorro people through exhibitions and Guam Museum publications.
Museum moves to Adelup, 1994
By 1992, Governor Joseph F. Ada separated the Guam Museum from the Public Library and made it a line agency of the government. The collections were moved to Adelup, starting two decades of relocations to various sites around the island.
In 1994, the Guam Museum opened an exhibition hall at Adelup. Several boxes of Guam artifacts stored at the Bishop Museum in Hawai`i were returned to Guam at this time, due to the work of Franquez.
A branch of the museum was opened in Tumon in 1996 but was closed several months later, and the administrative office and repository was moved to Tiyan, the site of the former Naval Air Station. Former Senator Tony Palomo, a journalist and Guam historian, served as the administrator of the Guam Museum from December 1995 until his retirement in 2007. Palomo supported the creation of a permanent building for the museum.
In 1999, Public Law 25-69 created the Department of Chamorro Affairs and the Guam Museum was incorporated as a division of DCA.
Adelup facility closes, 2002
In 2002, however, Typhoons Chata’an and Pongsonga damaged the Adelup and Tiyan facilities, forcing the Adelup site to close. Nevertheless, the museum continued to operate and offer exhibitions for the public. Under Palomo’s leadership, satellite exhibit facilities were opened at the Guam Premier Outlets in Tamuning for a year, and at the Micronesian Mall in Dededo from 2004 to 2007, attracting thousands of visitors.
In 2005, an executive order by Governor Felix Camacho created the Guam Museum Facilities Construction and Cultural Heritage Task Force to plan for the construction of a permanent facility for the Guam Museum. The Guam Museum Foundation formed in 2005 and worked to advocate for the construction of a new Guam Museum since 2007. In 2010, Camacho signed a bill authorizing a bond be issued to build the Guam Museum.
The Guam Museum Foundation was incorporated in 2006, and with public support, the architectural firm of Laguaña + Cristobal was selected to design the new museum facility with Andrew Laguana as the lead architect.
Governor Eddie B. Calvo directed the new museum be located in Skinner Plaza and it be renamed in honor of former director Palomo. Construction of the new facility began in 2014. The facility, which includes two theaters, a permanent exhibit, two revolving exhibit rooms, a multi-purpose room, a coffee shop and gift shop, was financed with a government issued bond for about $27 million to be paid back over the next 25 years.
The Department of Chamorro Affairs, a branch of the Government of Guam, contracted the Galaide Group to manage the facility with support from a Guampedia, Search, Inc., GUMA and the Guam Museum Foundation.
New permanent home built and opens in 2016
The museum currently has more than 250,000 unique artifacts, documents and photographs in its collections. It officially opened on 4 November 2016 with an exhibition on the history of the museum, the building’s architecture, the archaeological findings in Skinner Plaza where the museum sits, and the museum’s collections.
The permanent exhibit, however, is expected to be completed and open to the public in 2017.
Guam Museum Publications
- Guam Historical Museum. Thelma Glenn and Magdalena S. Taitano, 1960.
- Guam Museum. Designed and published by Garrison and Associates, 1979.
- Guam to have a Museum. Guam Recorder, 1926.
- I Hinanao-ta: A Pictorial Journey Through Time. DCA and Guam Museum, 2008.
- Kampånan Guåhan. Anthony Ramirez, 1998.
- Plaza de España. Historic Preservation, 1981.
- Tiningo’ Manmaloffan. William Hernandez, 1988.