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Revisiting Hawai'i - Bishop Museum presents the past

by Yvonne Lozano, staff writer

What is it about Hawai‘i that compels millions of tourists from around the world to visit year after year? The answer is simple. Along with its mesmerizing beaches and beautiful weather, Hawai‘i possesses a deeply rooted culture and history as rich as its lush green valleys and as solid as its natural rock formations.


The Bishop Museum is an excellent key to unlocking and understanding Hawai‘i’s past, from the island’s rise from the ocean to the captivating unification of the islands by King Kamehameha I, through the missionary period to the modern era of sugar cane and tourism.

In 1889, Charles Reed Bishop founded the museum to honor his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of the Kamehameha family. Princess Bishop believed in preserving the islands’ culture and in her will she established the Kamehameha school system, which is, so far, strictly for students of Hawaiian descent. Originally, Bishop established the museum to showcase the Princess’ large collection of royal artifacts. But now, 114 years later, the museum stands as one of the oldest and best places to visit and explore Hawaiian culture.

With a variety of rooms and halls, the museum invites everyone to explore its exhibits and appreciate everything Hawaiian.

The Kahili Room holds about 250 kahili, or feather standards, which were carried to signify the presence of a chief or used at royal funerals. The museum holds the largest collection of kahili in the world, and with each one stands a description of what it was used for. Although Hawai‘i no longer has royals, the kahili are still used in pageants and parades or to commemorate events relating to royalty.

Portraits of Hawaiian royalty, starting with King Kamehameha I and ending with the last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, decorate the walls along with a brief history of their reigns.

Across the Kahili Room and beyond a koa wood staircase is the Hawaiian Hall. The Victorian-style hall is open in the center, which is about half a football field in length. Three floors around it are dedicated to artifacts used by ancestral Hawaiians and the different cultures that have come to define Hawai‘i as a diverse state. An authentic koa surfboard, koa bowls, and poi pounders adorn the walls of the hall, each telling a story of Hawai‘i’s ancestors. A replica of a Hawaiian grass house sits atop the center stage where hula dancers perform daily. An original hula skirt is showcased just off the stage and near it sits a plaque that explains how the dance was almost completely erased because the missionaries found it offensive when they arrived in the 19th century. The last Kamehameha kings reinstated the hula, and it was publicly performed regularly during the reign of King Kalakaua.

To the left of the stage is the “most sacred cloaks of all cloaks in existence,” a feather cloak belonging to King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands. Up to 60,000 bird feathers were used to make the yellow and red cloak, which is absent of markings, signifying that the great ruler was too near to the gods to require an indication of rank.

Suspended from the ceiling is Prince Kuhio’s Royal Racing Canoe, the ‘A, which was built in 1902 and consistently placed first place in competitions from 1906-1910. Directly across from the canoe is the museum’s most popular display, a 50-foot long sperm whale. The façade of the sperm whale is made of papier-mâché and surrounds one side. The other side is open to show the whale’s actual skeleton. The third floor offers the best view of the skeleton and contains a small exhibit about whale migration.

The second floor of the Hawaiian Hall also houses artifacts made of dog, shark, and porpoise teeth. Original Hawaiian quilts are on exhibit along with a story of how patterns are chosen to represent the shadows of palm and tree leaves. Japanese silk kimonos, examples of German-influenced architecture, and a Puerto Rican wedding dress are some of the artifacts found on the third floor, celebrating some of the other cultures that have shaped Hawai‘i throughout history. A large Chinese bell sits in the northwest corner, which was rung before worshippers entered the temple to meditate.

The museum also features ancient and modern plants in the Hawaiian Court, just outside of the Hawaiian Hall, where people can grab a quick bite to eat or just relax and enjoy the beautiful vegetation found throughout the islands.

Upstairs from the front lobby, the Hall of Hawaiian Natural History traces the islands back millions of years to when oceanic volcano eruptions formed. The exhibit also provides a quick insight and provides examples of the types of insects that have learned to adapt to life inside of lava tubes.
The Peoples of the Pacific Hall demonstrates how ancient Polynesian societies lived and displays the ancient tools and clothing they used. The exhibit allows for a deeper understanding of the origins of Hawaiian society.

Next door, the Castle Building, which opened in 1990, has hosted many major traveling exhibits such as Return of the Dinosaurs in 1990 and Aloha from Waikiki in 2000. Chocolate: The Exhibition is now on display, featuring the many ways chocolate has impacted cultures worldwide. The exhibit provides interactive programs such as cooking and tasting as well as artifacts inspired by chocolate.

The museum’s planetarium reopened in June as the Jhamandas Watumull planetarum. Renovations included new seating, lighting, carpet, and neon signs. If the weather permits, the planetarium offers daily views for solar observing. NASA launched two rovers in early June and July, and they are scheduled to land on Mars in January 2004. In preparation for the event, the planetarium has set up two shows, Red Planet Mars and Mars Exploration Rover Demonstration, to help observers understand what the land rovers will be doing on the great red planet.

On Nov. 10, the museum broke ground for the new Science Learning Center which will be centered on a 26-foot volcano that will “erupt” several times a day. The new center will include subjects ranging from oceanography to volcanology. The center will be built in three phases, with the first phase scheduled to open December 2005.

The Bishop Museum offers a wealth of information into Hawai‘i’s history. The museum is located on 1525 Bernice St. in Honolulu and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $14.95 for adults, but they do offer kama‘aina, military, and senior rates with a valid ID. For more information call 847-3511 or visit the Web site at


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