The renovated hall isn’t just an exhibition space, a disconnected series of display cases and isolated objects. It’s a way of telling the stories of Hawaiian culture and the broader Pacific culture of which it is a part. The way Appelbaum’s design guides visitors through Hawaiian Hall might be the most significant transformation of all.
“Hawaiians believe in realms,” says Appelbaum, “so we use the [idea of] realms to frame the Hawaiian sense of world order.” For example, Kai Akea, on the first floor, will represent pre-contact times, the realm of the ancestors, with ancient Hawaiian stories and myths woven
among objects from the natural world; Wao Kanaka, on the second floor, represents the human realm: people living, working, growing crops and harvesting the sea. Wao Lani, on the third floor, is the realm of the gods and the ali‘i. “As you move through the space, you get a deeper understanding of how Hawaiians see the world,” says Appelbaum, who ensured that visitors won’t just be “looking at objects through a window, but actually engaging in this journey through Hawaiian culture.”
The new exhibits will also connect visitors to Hawai‘i’s cultural traditions through the voices of contemporary Native Hawaiians. “Before, the hall was really an amalgamation of old exhibits, unrelated to the others,” says Noelle Kahanu, museum project manager. “It talked about Hawaiians in the past and about dead arts and things that were no longer being done, when in fact those are practices that have long been on the rise. So we really needed to show that in many respects the culture continues and evolves.”
Now the museum’s treasures from the past will be displayed alongside contemporary Hawaiian art and photography to reveal that cultural continuity. New films will inform visitors about Hawaiian history and culture: the annexation petitions, land claims, the recovery of the language, the concept of chiefdom, statehood, genealogy, craft making and oli (chants). Interactive elements, such as a hands-on activity zone where visitors can touch poi pounders or feel a shark’s fin, will help visitors “see [Hawai‘i] through the eyes, words and objects of the people who loved it first,” says Appelbaum.
The objects will continue to be cared for in accordance with Hawaiian cultural practices, such as periodically opening artifact cases to let the objects “breathe.” “That’s the kind of important input that we responded to,” says Appelbaum, input that was essential in helping the museum stay true to a Hawaiian identity. “The level of Hawaiian community consultation
is unprecedented, certainly for us and certainly in Hawai‘i,” says Kahanu, “and what Ralph and his team brought was a really strong sense of storytelling and the power of the narrative in a museum context.” Since Hawaiian culture centers on storytelling and oral history, narrative is the essential bridge between the past and present, a link that until now had been missing from the hall.
“To find a place that’s loved and cared for and nurtured gives us a deep respect and a way to bring values back to our own homes,” says Appelbaum. “I imagine a hushed and animated discussion happening in the Bishop Museum because people will be seeing cultural objects that have such deep resonance. It will be a place where every object tells a deep story.” HH