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Bishop Museum: Sharing the Artifacts of Hawaii’s History


If you need a break from the sun and surf or just a chance to escape the heat, a trip to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, can add the right touch of educational and cultural opportunities to the traditional Hawaii vacation. Located just outside of downtown Honolulu in Kalihi, the Bishop Museum is known for its extensive collection of Polynesian artifacts that will transport you back to the old Hawaii. The largest museum in the state of Hawaii, it is known around the world for its cultural collections, research, and educational programs.

The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by philanthropist Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The Princess was the last living heir of the Kamehameha Dynasty which ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1810 through 1872 and the museum was intended as a space for her to house family heirlooms.

The museum was constructed on the then campus of Kamehameha Schools, and the Hawaiian Hall and Polynesian Hall both stand on the original site to this day. The two buildings, as well as two others owned by the museum, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1940, the museum had more space to expand when Kamehameha School’s moved to a new campus and by 1980 the Bishop Museum had established itself as the largest natural and cultural history institution in Polynesia.

Some exhibits at the Bishop Museum include:

Hawaiian Hall

A visit to the newly renovated Hawaiian Hall transports visitors back in time to ancient Hawaii with authentic Hawaiian royal regalia. The halls are decorated with ancient weapons, traditional instruments like the feathered uli, as well as royal jewelry. Koa wood display cases are available for the public to enjoy – today worth more than the original price that Bishop paid to have the museum built. In particular, the Hawaiian Hall is known for its iconic sperm-whale skeleton completed out of paper mache and suspended above the gallery.

The open floor plan allows visitors to peruse three floors, representing the different “realms” of Hawaii. The first floor represents “Kai Akea” or the realm of Hawaiian gods, legends and pre-contact Hawaii. The second floor, or “Wao Kanaka” signifies where people lived and worked, putting a focus on the land and nature found in day-to-day life. The third floor, “Wao Lani” is the realm inhabited by gods, where guests can learn about the alii (or royalty) and significant events in Hawaii history.

Pacific Hall

Another must-visit at the Bishop Museum is the Pacific Hall, offering information and artifacts on Oceania. The hall’s newly renovated two-story gallery features cultural treasures such as canoes, mats, contemporary artwork and videos. Further up the second floor, guests can learn about the origins and migration of Pacific people through the lens of archaeology, linguistics and the oral traditions they practiced.

J. Watamull Planeterium

Soar through the starry sky in the high tech J. Watumull Planetarium. The planetarium just completed renovations in December 2012, which includes a new interior dome, sound and lighting system and the addition of a star machine, providing visitors with a realistic and vivid recreation of the night sky. In case you’ve come during a rare rainy period, the system gives you a glance at more than 8,500 pinpoint stars and bright planets.

If you can’t find your way, guides recommend the Wayfinder’s show, which takes place daily at 1:30 p.m. This show takes guests on a navigational voyage on board the Hokulea, the famous Polynesian voyaging canoe that navigates the Pacific seas solely by keeping a watchful eye on the stars. The Planetarium also offers a special night show featuring live classical guitar music called “Stars and Guitars.” This show is hosted on the first and third Saturdays of each month.

After traversing the constellations, pay a visit to the museum’s rotating exhibits, which in the past have ranged from surfing to dinosaurs as well as wearable art. There is usually something interactive to participate in at the Richard T Mamiya Science Center, which is appealing to adults and kids alike, while the Science Center features exhibits on volcanic activity and the oceanography of the islands.

Today the Bishop Museum serves to represent the interests of Native Hawaiians, holding millions of artifacts, documents and photos about Hawaii and Polynesia. Whether you are looking to visit the Hawaiian Hall and swim alongside a sperm whale skeleton or navigate the Pacific skies in the planetarium, a visit to the Bishop Museum is time well spent.

Beginning in October 2015, the museum will be open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information visit the Bishop Museum’s website.