story by Leslie Lang
photos by MACARIO
It’s been rising on the Hilo skyline for four years and, finally, there it is: Dramatic titanium shining in the morning sun. From both an aesthetic and architectural standpoint, this is one of the most dynamic buildings ever constructed on the island. Three cones pushing up to the sky, meant to evoke three mountains: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai.
When my daughter and I arrived at the brand-new ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i—the $28 million, NASA-sponsored, UH-Hilo-operated venture—I was a bit wary. The center claims to “uniquely weave astronomy and Hawaiian culture into a compelling story of human exploration and voyaging,” but I wondered how a facility directed by scientists well removed from, and often at odds with, the Hawaiian community would present that culure to our visitors and our children.
It’s no secret that the two communities—Hawaiian and scientific—haven’t mixed well on Mauna Kea. Astronomers from around the world are thrilled to have access to the thirteen observatories at the mountain’s summit, which is widely considered the best spot on the planet for deep-space viewing and which, in recent years, has been the site of a number of groundbreaking discoveries. On the other hand, many Hawaiians (and their non-Hawaiian allies) are appalled by what they consider a lack of respect and careless desecration of the peak, a sacred site that is traditionally considered a wao akua, or realm of the gods.
This is the context in which ‘Imiloa—the name translates as “to seek far” or “explore”—was conceived and built. Coupled with perceptions of how Hawaiian culture has been “packaged” for public consumption in the past, it’s easy to understand why many Hawaiians—myself included—have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since planning for the center began in the late 1990s.
“I think a lot of people were worried that we were going to be yet another place that would exploit the Hawaiian people for the sake of tourism,” says Justina Mattos, who serves as cultural coordinator for the center. It’s a concern that was shared by Ka‘iu Kimura who—along with her uncle, noted Hawaiian language scholar Larry Kimura—did much of the work on ‘Imiloa's Hawaiian cultural content.