History of the Guam Museum Columns

In 2022 while attending the first ever Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Museum Institute (NHPIMI) in Hawai'i, I began to write a series of columns for the Pacific Daily News that covered some of the 90 year history of the Guam Museum. 

 In recent decades the Guam Museum has a fairly complicated history, where at times for years there was no actual museum, just a collection moving from storage space to storage space. Even at times when there has been a physical, dedicated facility for the museum, sometimes there has been insufficient staff or resources. Even legally where the museum falls within the Government of Guam as an agency has changed over the past forty years.

 For these complicating factors, the columns focused on the museum's history from the 1930s to the 1970s. 


“Can a Museum Being a Living Institution?”

July 21, 2022


I am spending the month of July at the East-West Center as part of the historic first cohort for the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Museum Institute. In all 17 of us are here from different corners of the Pacific, representing museums, cultural agencies and art centers large and small. Part of the focus for this institute is “decolonizing” the museum, or reimagining museums in our communities so that they serve our interests and meet our needs, and move away from their potentially limiting origins.


This is the case for the Guam Museum, where I currently work as curator. One of the earliest mentions of the possibility of a Guam Museum can be found in the pre-World War II newspaper, “The Guam Recorder.” The US Navy ruled Guam at this time, and Chamorus witnessed it improving the island in a variety of ways, but also experienced racism and paternalism, most notably the banning of Chamoru language in public spaces and schools.


In the October 1926 issue there is an article “Guam to have a Museum” which describes how the Guam Teachers’ Association had unanimously voted to support the creation of a Guam Museum, and would immediately begin to collect items of cultural and historical significance to the Chamoru people. Ramon Manalisay Sablan, who would later go on to become the first Chamoru medical doctor, was at that time a member of the association and was placed in charge of the collection.


The interest in Guam having a museum was driven by the feeling of loss amongst the Chamorus of the time. The arrival of the US in 1898 had led to dramatic changes to Guam and in the lives of Chamorus within just a few decades. Education had been very limited under the Spanish, but now the majority of children were attending public schools. Radio and motion pictures were becoming an increasingly common part of Chamoru life. More and more jungle and areas filled with artifacts of ancient Chamoru life were being disturbed and destroyed by the US Navy to make way for modern infrastructure.


Young Chamorus growing up in the 1920s for example, were still living closely to the land and the sea as their parents and grandparents had before. But now with the island changing around them, that connection was being disrupted and potentially weakening. Their sense of identity was changing too, as their frame of reference for the world was increasingly being tied to the United States, its media and cultural influence.


There was a worry within the Guam Teachers’ Association that Chamoru youth at the time would be growing up with little knowledge or connection to their past. They expressed in their meeting a concern that items of historical and cultural value were rapidly disappearing around the island, and that a museum would be a way of stemming that potential loss.


This motivation in the formation of a museum is a common one, but it is also potentially limiting. What drove the teachers of that time was a feeling that the battle to preserve and maintain culture and connection to the past was already a losing one. And that a museum was a way to mark the battlefield, to commemorate with relics what was once here. But instead of a mausoleum, can a museum be a living institution for a community?




“The Guam Museum Grows”

July 28, 2022


Although some of the earliest documented discussions of Guam having its own museum date back to 1926, it didn’t become a reality until six years later. In 1932, the American Legion Mid-Pacific Post 1 opened the first iteration of the Guam Museum.


The American Legion is a non-profit organization that supports veterans’ issues and engages in community service projects. The American Legion had only formed in Guam in 1930, and one of its local founders, Hiram Elliot, was a driving force in starting the museum.


Elliot had come to Guam in the early 20th century in the US Navy, to work at Maria Schroeder Naval Hospital. He married Concepcion Martinez, a Chamoru woman, and they raised a family of 12. Elliot worked as a teacher on island and also opened a drug store. Upon opening in 1932, Elliot was named the first director, Joaquin T. Aguon was the first curator. The museum started off with a small collection of artifacts donated by the community, including items from the private collection of Påle’ Jose Palomo, the first ever Chamoru priest, who had died in 1919.


The US Naval Government authorized the use of a building in the Spanish Governor’s complex for the new museum. The building had a tragic history. In 1896, while rebellion and revolutions were stirring in the Philippines against Spanish colonial rule, Filipino political prisoners were being brought to Guam in the hundreds. Barracks were poorly converted into prisons and far too many prisoners were crammed into them. One night, while masses of inmates were shouting and trying to break through the roofs and walls in the decrepit building, the guards repeatedly fired upon them. In what was called “The Christmas Eve Massacre” 80 of the prisoners were killed and 45 were wounded, in the barracks that would later be converted into the Guam Museum.


The maintenance of the Guam Museum by the American Legion was not sustainable, as funds for everything came out of the pocket of its members, who were themselves volunteers. At this point, the museum was primarily focused on providing tours to US military stationed on Guam, as well as off-island visitors. In 1936, the US Navy would formally take over the Guam Museum, and for the first time it would have regular, paid staff.


Margaret Higgins, a US Navy wife in Guam, who had a great interest in Chamoru history became the first curator. Agueda Johnston, pioneering educator in 20th century Guam served on a collections committee for the museum and helped expand its collection of ancient Chamoru artifacts. The shift in ownership of the Guam Museum helped facilitate a greater sense of ownership from the larger Chamoru community as well. Whereas visits to the museum had in its early days largely been non-Chamorus, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, Chamorus were now most visitors.


Schools brought their students to the Guam Museum, and would have them not only tour the space, but also sit and sketch artifacts. On market days, or when Chamorus living outside of Hagåtña would come to the capital to sell their crops or livestock, the museum saw increases in attendance. By this time electricity had become more common on Guam, and the museum even had evening hours, where not just the building, but also the display cases were illuminated for guests.




“The Reopening of the Guam Museum”

August 5, 2022


The 32-month Japanese occupation of Guam brought so much destruction and tragedy to the island and the Chamoru people, and the Guam Museum was not spared this. In the US effort to retake the island, there was a concerted bombing campaign and intense fighting. The majority of the buildings in Hagåtña were lost, including the Guam Museum building were destroyed. But even prior to its destruction, the Japanese had already pillaged the Guam Museum, as an unknown number of its artifacts had been stolen from the collection and taken back to Japan as souvenirs.


In the rubble of the war, the Guam Museum was nonetheless remembered fondly by some of the US servicemen who had visited it prior to the war. Marine Corporal William Curry Jr. from Rotan, Texas had been stationed in Guam in until October 1941, and had been transferred out just a few months before the Japanese invasion in December. He returned as part of the US invasion and tried to find what had become of the local museum.


He found its wreckage and reported back home that ironically, one of the few things to survive was a plaque presented back in 1932 upon the initial opening of the Guam Museum. That plaque read “Japanese Garden presented on the opening of the Guam Museum by The Japanese Society of Guam in appreciation of the cordial relations with Capt. E.S. Root USN, governor of Guam, June 15, 1932.”


Some artifacts and historical documents were saved from the wreckage. A Museums and Monuments Committee was set up in 1949 to discuss the issue of reopening the museum. There was still a great interest within the community to having a museum, and the widescale devastation of the war, had made the need for the preservation of the past even more critical.


The prewar concerns of loss and disconnection that had driven the community to support the existence of a Guam Museum were even more pronounced. In the 1920s and 1930s, the worry had been that young Chamorus would grow up not knowing much about their past, not understanding the significance of latte and other stone artifacts that were still common in Guam’s jungles and around villages. But with the US military taking Chamoru lands and huge parts of the island being bulldozed to literally pave the way for new bases, there was also a possibility that unless some things were preserved, Chamorus of the future may not even have the chance to see a latte or other artifacts with their own eyes.


In Chamoru there is a saying “Cha’-mu angongokko agupa’, sa’ agupa’ ti agupa’-mu. Chumåchalek hao på’go, tumåtanges agupa’.” “Don’t trust tomorrow, because it is not yours. You are laughing today and crying tomorrow.” It is a reminder to not rely on tomorrow always being there for you, and that things which must be done, should be done now, before it is too late. Within this context, it is a reminder to hold on to what you can, since you may look down tomorrow and see it has already slipped through your fingers.


In just 50 years, the Chamorus of Guam had seen so much rapid change in their lives and to their island. A museum was a much-needed institution to help document their past and ever-evolving present. This is why within just a decade of the war’s end, in 1954, the Guam Museum would open its doors again.




“Postwar Rebuilding of the Guam Museum”

August 13, 2022


After being closed for 13 years, on Saturday, May 29th, 1954, the Guam Museum opened its doors once again. Although technically still in existence during the Japanese occupation, the Guam Museum had closed following the Japanese invasion in 1941. It was then destroyed, along with most of its collection during the American reinvasion in 1944.


The first postwar Guam Museum would be in the same area as its prewar incarnation, the Plaza de España, but now it would be in a different building, a storage shed commonly known as the garden house. This was one of the few parts of the Governor’s palace to survive the bombing of Hagåtña, and it can still be seen in the Plaza today.


According to a Guam Daily News article covering the opening, the first permanent loan to the Guam Museum came from Jose Daig Camacho. He donated several items to the museum including an earthenware water jug, a pair of bronze candlesticks and a bronze coffee pot, all made during the Spanish period of Guam’s history. Punch was served in the nearby Chocolate House for those who came to this special event. 


As I discussed last column, there had been an interest in reopening the museum soon after the end of the Japanese occupation. But it naturally took a backseat to other rebuilding efforts going on around the island. A committee was first set up in 1949 to oversee the establishment of parks on the island and discuss the issue of reopening the Guam Museum. In 1953, the second civilian governor of Guam in the postwar period Ford Elvidge reinforced this idea and formed the Parks and Monuments and Museum Committee.


Some of the notable names from that committee were Emilie Johnston, Belle Arriola, Paul and Mariquita Souder, Rosalie Langford Bordallo and Cynthia Torres. Although the activities that restarted the Guam Museum were government directed, it was truly a community effort. It would not have been possible without the support of two civic groups, the Guam Women’s Club and the Guam Historical Society. Many of the committee members previously mentioned were key officials and founders of these two groups. 


The Guam Historical Society, sometimes called the Guam Historical Club was instrumental in making the museum a reality in several ways. The group was led by Tan Agueda Johnston and Paul Souder, and was comprised of people who enjoyed studying Guam’s history. This passion for learning about the past first manifested in members of the society canvassing the community for artifacts and other items of historical value that could be used to rebuild the war-ravaged collection. Members of the club also helped create the text panels and signage for the museum, and provide tours to the community.


The Guam Women’s Club was also instrumental in this new beginning for the Guam Museum, in terms of providing volunteers to help staff the museum. This organization had been important in the early postwar years in terms of supporting civic projects such as public parks. The Guam Women’s Club was also known in the 1950s for hosting lectures and public forums.


When the Guam Museum first opened in 1954, there were no paid staff. It was run entirely by volunteers from these two organizations. In 1955, one of the volunteers and member of the Guam Women’s Club Thelma Glenn, would be hired as the museum’s employee.




“Thelma Glenn was the Face and Voice of the Guam Museum”

August 18, 2022


Appointed civilian Governor of Guam Ford Q. Elvidge pushed for the creation of the Guam Museum during his tenure in the early 1950s through the formation of a Parks and Monuments and Museum Committee. This committee would be responsible for establishing Latte Stone Park in Hagåtña, Ypao Park in Tumon and maintaining Fort Santa Agueda or what most today know as Fort Apugan.


The 1954 reopening of the Guam Museum was something community volunteers such as Paul Souder and Tan Agueda Johnston helped make possible, primarily through support of the groups the Guam Historical Society and the Guam Women’s Club. Both groups did collection drives in the community to add more items of historical and cultural significance to the museum’s offerings. They were also the staff in its first year, opening the museum and conducting community tours. One of those volunteers Mrs. Thelma Glenn, would in time become synonymous with the Guam Museum for the next two decades. 


Mrs. Glenn first arrived in Guam with her husband Lloyd in 1946, after he had left the US Navy and began working for Civil Service. They quickly fell in the love with the island after just a year and a half and decided to stay, her husband opening an electronic and radio repair shop. Mrs. Glenn was a charter member of the Guam Women’s Club and also one of the first volunteers helping open the museum each week.


Initially, she had spoken out against the Guam Women’s Club supporting the Guam Museum, thinking that the group should focus on developing an animal welfare program instead. But once the decision had been made to support, her love of library work and love for Guam, overrode any initial resistance and she eventually became one of the museum’s biggest boosters.


In 1955, Mrs. Glenn became the first paid employee of the Guam Museum, working three days a week. In 1957, her and her husband left island for a few months traveling to Chuuk for contract work that Mr. Lloyd had picked up. Her absence was felt so strongly, that as soon as she returned, she was offered a full-time position, working as director of the Guam Museum.


For 22 years, Mrs. Glenn was the face and voice of the Guam Museum. She would sweep the floors, wipe down the cases and do whatever she could to preserve the small, but always growing collection of artifacts under her care. She would regularly take new items in from local residents, and also reached out to former Guam residents, such as former Naval Governors of Guam to see if they could offer anything of educational value to the museum. 


Many who grew up in Guam during these postwar years remember visiting the small, but quaint Garden House version of the Guam Museum, and joining a tour of the space with Mrs. Glenn. Now with a full time, dedicated employee the museum could take regular field trips, and so tens of thousands of children attended these tours and storytelling sessions. She loved taking kids into the museum since their eyes and ears were more open to learning about history. Adults, she joked seemed more content to complain about the space being dusty or too small.


Mrs. Glenn would retire from the Guam Museum in 1976. Reflecting back on her time she said, “It’s been a wonderful experience…I cannot imagine my life without the museum.”




“Garden House to Guam Museum”

August 25, 2022


When the Guam Museum first opened in 1954 at the Garden House in the Plaza de España it was considered quaint. It seemed ideal to use a historic building for a location meant to house historical objects and teach Guam’s history. Yet it did not take long for the Garden House to feel limiting and inadequate for a variety of reasons.


The Garden House was one of the oldest buildings on island, first constructed in 1736. The age of the building, combined with the fact that it wasn’t meant to be a museum or exhibition space, quickly presented problems that were difficult to ignore.


Longtime employee at the Guam Museum Thelma Glenn recalled that even the floor itself was a problem. She noted that from the moment the museum opened, “We had a cement floor, and when you swept it, you’d get dust. And when you’d wet it to keep the dust down, you got real Spanish mud. One of the military men got us sawdust I sprinkled it on the floor.”


By the late 1970s, a curator had been hired for the Guam Museum, Fabiola Calkins. In a 1978 Pacific Daily News article she highlighted the numerous challenges the museum faced both in terms of limited resources and location that had seen much better days. In the article she bemoaned the ancient display cases, insect infestations, poor lighting, bad security, and termites in the roof. Being interviewed just two years after Typhoon Pamela, Calkins was worried the next typhoon would destroy the facility entirely.


During her time Glenn had steadily helped increase the collection of the Guam Museum, going from a few hundred items to several thousand by the 1970s. Manuel Guerrero, during his time as governor had also made the Guam Museum the official depository and custodian for Guam’s historical artifacts. The dramatic increase in the size of the museum’s collection and its obligation to serve the community, unfortunately did not come with an increase in resources or new facilities.


Former Speaker of the Guam Legislature Carlos P. Taitano saw some of the problems the Guam Museum was facing and also imagined a better future for it. In 1965, he told the community that he hoped to “stir up interest in the museum.” Taitano described the Guam Museum of that time as “crowded” and “old-fashioned” and despite its historically significant location in the Plaza de España, too small to serve the task it would provide in a rapidly developing postwar Guam. Namely, a chance for tourists and visitors to learn about Chamoru and Guam history. Taitano lamented that most visitors who were able to find the museum found it wholly inadequate.


Taitano proposed that a “two-story edifice of Spanish design should be built. The ground floor may be used for object display and the top floor to include office space, public rest rooms, and a lecture room with a stage where film slides and motion pictures can be shown.” His ultimate vision included rebuilding the Spanish Governor’s palace in its entirety, and then using the facility as a museum space. This has been a goal for several administration in recent years, but little has come from it. The dream of a revamped and expanded museum itself though would eventually become a reality, although it would take several decades to get there.



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