story by Christine Thomas
photos by Olivier Koning
Inside the dark, three-storey chamber, light plays on dusty displays of ancient artifacts, cast by spotlights running from antiquated electrical outlets. A large skylight has been covered by a plastic tarp, blocking harmful sunlight but doing little to diminish the heat—particularly in the stifling heights of the upper storey. Wires snake across the floors. The roof leaks, paint peels. The rotted, termite-gnawed wood and layers of grime from more than a century of use obscure the majesty of Bishop Museum’s very heart: Hawaiian Hall.
“When one first saw it, one didn’t know if it could really be cleaned up well enough,” recalls Ralph Appelbaum in his soft, sandpaper voice, with barely a trace of his native Brooklyn accent. Though hidden, the hall’s glory was obvious to Appelbaum, the architect who spearheaded the hall’s restoration. “You can count on your hand the number of classic Victorian, wooden multistorey museum buildings,” he says. “And in the States, there’s only one that looks like and contains what the Hawaiian Hall contains. It’s a unique facility in a unique place.” Today the fully restored Hawaiian Hall appears as grand as it did to visitors in 1902, when it first opened. Appelbaum’s enthusiasm for this project almost makes you forget it’s not his only one. Since founding his own museum
and exhibition design firm in 1978, Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), he’s become known as a revolutionary in his field. He’s arguably most celebrated for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which weaves video, writing and artifacts into a technologically stunning, emotionally challenging journey. His other projects include the
William J. Clinton Presidential Center, the renovation of the American Museum of Natural History Fossil Halls, and recently the Newseum’s new D.C. location, for which Appelbaum secured the World Trade Center’s communications tower and the door from the Watergate break-in.
With such accolades, it was a bit of a coup that Bishop Museum was able to bring Appelbaum on board. But the architect holds the museum in special esteem; the renovation of Hawaiian Hall brought Appelbaum back to O‘ahu, where he once lived for a year in the early ’70s when working on the design of Pearlridge Mall. Appelbaum says that’s when his love of Hawai‘i began, but it was his desire to help the Bishop Museum speak “in the voice of the Hawaiian people” that led him to accept what will be RAA’s 104th opening—the renovation of the Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian Hall, scheduled for completion in summer 2009.