As Shangri La’s new executive director, Konrad Ng has big plans for the grand estate and beyond.
Konrad Ng has been driven by a passion to learn and discuss the intersection of art and culture and its effect on citizenship. His nearly two-decade career has seen him in academia and film, from Honolulu to Washington, D.C., and he’s gearing up for more important work as the new executive director of Shangri La, the magnificent former residence of heiress Doris Duke and now museum and center for Islamic art and culture near Diamond Head.
Ng, who was born in Canada to Malaysian immigrants, earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University and master’s degree in cultural, social and political thought from the University of Victoria, both in Canada. After earning his master’s degree, he took a year off to care for his ailing father, but he also had an eye toward a doctorate degree. He wanted to explore culture and media and how it enriches citizenship.
“We tend to think of citizenship in terms of rights and duties and elections, but to me, we experience citizenship culturally,” Ng says. “Culture and in particular media, film, art and design play a big role.”
The University of Hawai‘i at Manoa had done research in that field, so he applied and was accepted into a doctorate program. At UH, he also met his wife, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who was also a Ph.D. student at the university. As a graduate assistant at the International Cultural Studies program, he shared an office with a mutual friend in the East-West Center on the Manoa campus. “Maya came into the doorway and it was just like a femme fatale, smoke machine and everything. I was smitten!”
The couple married in 2003 and now has two daughters, Suhaila and Savita. Oh, and his brother-in-law turned out to be Barack Obama.
“I didn’t know that when we got married that I would have this extra chapter in American history,” Ng says. “To that I am so grateful because it’s been an extraordinary experience in my life.”
After graduating with a Ph.D. in political science, he became the first curator of film and video for the Honolulu Museum of Art—then called the Honolulu Academy of Arts— where he had a chance to work at a museum and pursue his love of film.
“I was interested in using this program to think about how communities who don’t otherwise find a place for themselves in popular culture or in national culture, like in museums, would turn to mediums like film,” he says.
Ng is a cinephile. He has movie memorabilia around his office, such as a Godzilla figurine on his coffee table and a Star Wars screensaver running on his computer. His favorite movie constantly changes, and he enjoys Hollywood summer blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War as much as films from cerebral filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Jai Zhangke.
After his stint at the Honolulu Museum of Art, he served as an assistant professor at the Academy for Creative Media, UH’s then-new film program, focusing on critical studies. In 2009, he served as a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program in Washington, D.C. As the semester wrapped up, the program’s previous director was retiring. The Smithsonian asked if he could fill in as the acting director since he had administrative background and museum experience.
The role was a good fit and he was offered the job to become the director of what is now called the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The Washington-based position did require some sacrifice.
“Sometimes opportunities happen, and you have to take them, regardless of circumstances. This was one of them,” he says. His daughters were in school, and Maya was a professor at UH and it wouldn’t be feasible to uproot them.
“We talked about it and as a family we realized that the Smithsonian is not just a prestige museum, but it is a place of public service,” he says. “For me, as an Asian American there was no higher calling as it were to really think about the communities which have yet to feel embraced in the national patrimony in terms of being represented in our institutions of culture.”
He decided on a long commute between Washington and Honolulu, with his wife and daughters living in Hawai‘i most of the year, and the whole family spending summers at the nation’s capital.
In 2015, he was approached about the position at Shangri La. “I had to pinch myself. Wow! What an extraordinary opportunity.”
The mission of the Doris Duke Foundation on Islamic Art, which manages Shangri La, is to promote the study and understanding of Islamic arts and culture. While Shangri La is an impeccable site that can amaze visitors, Ng hopes the museum’s work goes beyond that.
“Museums are part of those engines of increasing and creating civic cultures, increasing and creating citizenship,” he says. “When we now go into a museum and we look at its collections and we see or listen to its program or see some of its work online, we have an expectation that these things also serve as moral compasses. They are not just narratives of heritage, but they point to what we need to invest ourselves in and to improve.”
With a few months on the job, he hopes Shangri La can be a place for discussion in the community, as well as nationally and beyond. But he also looks forward to enjoying his personal life.
“My daughters are getting older so watching them is amazing and heartbreaking because time goes so fast,” Ng says. “And this is where I probably sound like an old man, but I just spent the last few years missing out on a few things, doing work that was important, and I’m not going to let the next few years be the same. I’m still doing important stuff, thankfully here in Hawai‘i, but what I’d like to do is try to capture what I know will only be a one-time thing with my children.”