Story by Dave Choo
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
Every year Professor Vilsoni Hereniko used to take his students to Polynesian Hall at the Bishop Museum, where they would view the hall’s collection of Micronesian and Melanesian artifacts and exhibits. Back in class Hereniko would ask his students to write about their visits. There was always surprise that a place named Polynesian Hall was focused on Micronesia and Melanesia. And another observation came up time and time again: The place, the students wrote, felt dead.
“Basically, my students thought that the native peoples were treated like artifacts, items frozen in time. It was as if everything stopped with Captain Cook’s arrival,” recalls
Hereniko, who teaches Pacific literature and film at the University of Hawai‘i’s Academy for Creative Media. “There was very little effort to show how people and their cultures evolve over time, let alone how they are living today.” Hereniko, who is from Rotuma in the Fiji Islands, is quick to point out that the subject of the Pacific isn’t an easy one: It’s difficult for any museum to adequately cover a vast geographic area that contains more than twenty-five thousand islands and a diversity of complex cultures. In addition Hereniko notes that Polynesian Hall’s static depiction of native peoples was hardly unique in the museum world; many if not most institutions around the globe take a similarly traditional approach.
Nonetheless several years ago Hereniko decided that Bishop Museum officials should hear his students’ comments, so he gathered them up and mailed them off. Much to his surprise a museum official quickly called him up. Bishop Museum was planning a major renovation of Polynesian Hall, the official said, and they appreciated—indeed, needed—input from museum-goers, especially from people like Hereniko, who had a deep knowledge of and connection with the Pacific. Change was underway, the official said, and the goal was to tell the story of the world’s greatest ocean and its people in a new and vital way.