Hawaiian Hall was effectively a virgin canvas, built between 1889 and 1903 and barely touched since: Improvements amounted to the addition of public restrooms in 1924, steel doors in 1935 and electric lighting in 1968. The much-needed renovation—a longtime Bishop Museum goal—required $16.5 million in donations. The project’s first step entailed restoring the hall to, in Appelbaum’s words, “literally its original glory.” Time had not been kind to the koa interior, which has now been refinished to its original honey luster. The bronze columns have been stripped of paint, their warm patina restored. Some of the glory isn’t original: Fiber-optic lighting, climate controls and window panels to shield the interior from sunlight bring the hall into alignment with world-class museum conservation standards.
Even with these upgrades, the Hawaiian Hall retains its Victorian appeal and its most iconic objects. The lava-rock fish-god (which workers left in place during the renovations because no amount of excavating could unearth its base) still stands on the periphery. The “poison god” sculptures, ready to harm the hall’s enemies, watch from above the third-floor gallery. The 55-foot sperm whale model has been cleaned and restored; it remains suspended from the ceiling where it was hung in 1902. The Hale Pili, the only surviving example of an authentic Hawaiian hale (house), and the model heiau (temple), have been reconstructed with help from local schoolchildren. And two important new additions will greet visitors at the entrance: carved artifacts representing Lono and Ku, principal gods in the Hawaiian cosmology.
Once renovations are complete, new artifacts will undoubtedly take their places
alongside the familiar ones. Previously, less than a tenth of the museum’s vast collection could be displayed in the hall, but now its most prized possessions, such as vibrant feather cloaks belonging to the ali‘i (monarchs), will be on view for the first time in generations.