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Vol.12, No. 2
April / May 2009

  >>   Architect of Stories
  >>   Life on the Fringe

Architect of Stories (Page 2)



With a Pratt Institute bachelor’s degree in hand, a young Ralph Appelbaum set out to not spend the mid-1960s like other young architects: slaving away at an industrial design job in Manhattan. Instead, he went to Peru, where he served as a design advisor with the Peace Corps and USAID. He immersed himself in the indigenous art world, helping Peruvian Indians produce crafts for sale to tourists. Appelbaum saw art dealers come and go, but they rarely interacted with the people whose art they purchased. The objects would later show up in museum collections as isolated artifacts, with no context or explanation of their importance to the culture that produced them. “Most curators weren’t bothering to engage anyone but the expert,” Appelbaum says. He decided then to focus on museum and exhibition design so he could help tell the stories of these cultures. “I was convinced that by 
using objects and stories, multiple voices and professional communications disciplines,” Appelbaum says, “we could create learning experiences based on the real, on the authentic.”

It’s not difficult to understand, then, why the Bishop Museum project appealed to Appelbaum. Built from lava rock quarried on site, the museum was founded by Charles Reed Bishop in memory of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The last descendant of King Kamehameha I, she had used her lands to establish Kamehameha Schools on 
the current museum grounds. Once constructed, the buildings housed her royal family heirlooms and Hawaiian artifacts, which became the museum’s core collection. Today, Bishop is Hawai‘i’s largest museum and world-renowned for its collection of more than 24.7 million Hawai‘i and Pacific items and more than 2.4 million artifacts representing Native Hawaiian, Pacific Island and Hawai‘i immigrant cultures. Their collection and educational programs continue to fulfill the original mission of studying, preserving and telling stories of Hawai‘i’s culture and natural history. With such a rich foundation in place, all Appelbaum had to do during the design process, he says, was get out of the way and let Hawaiian culture speak for itself.