Issue 12.2: April / May 2009

Architect of Stories

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.




With a Pratt Institute bachelor’s degree in hand, a young Ralph Appelbaum set out to not spend the mid-1960s like other young architects: slaving away at an industrial design job in Manhattan. Instead, he went to Peru, where he served as a design advisor with the Peace Corps and USAID. He immersed himself in the indigenous art world, helping Peruvian Indians produce crafts for sale to tourists. Appelbaum saw art dealers come and go, but they rarely interacted with the people whose art they purchased. The objects would later show up in museum collections as isolated artifacts, with no context or explanation of their importance to the culture that produced them. “Most curators weren’t bothering to engage anyone but the expert,” Appelbaum says. He decided then to focus on museum and exhibition design so he could help tell the stories of these cultures. “I was convinced that by 
using objects and stories, multiple voices and professional communications disciplines,” Appelbaum says, “we could create learning experiences based on the real, on the authentic.”

It’s not difficult to understand, then, why the Bishop Museum project appealed to Appelbaum. Built from lava rock quarried on site, the museum was founded by Charles Reed Bishop in memory of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The last descendant of King Kamehameha I, she had used her lands to establish Kamehameha Schools on 
the current museum grounds. Once constructed, the buildings housed her royal family heirlooms and Hawaiian artifacts, which became the museum’s core collection. Today, Bishop is Hawai‘i’s largest museum and world-renowned for its collection of more than 24.7 million Hawai‘i and Pacific items and more than 2.4 million artifacts representing Native Hawaiian, Pacific Island and Hawai‘i immigrant cultures. Their collection and educational programs continue to fulfill the original mission of studying, preserving and telling stories of Hawai‘i’s culture and natural history. With such a rich foundation in place, all Appelbaum had to do during the design process, he says, was get out of the way and let Hawaiian culture speak for itself.




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.


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