Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

The Great Adventure

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.

Bishop Museum is one of the Islands’ most venerated institutions, a place dedicated to Pacific science, art and culture far and wide. Polynesian Hall, which opened well over a century ago in 1894, was the first addition to the museum’s original building. It was to be part of a larger complex of exhibition spaces that would have included a Micronesian Hall and a Melanesian Hall. But those expansion plans were never realized, and the hall eventually became home to a hodgepodge of cultural and natural history exhibits that at one point even included a stuffed polar bear. A 1957 “modernization” effort lowered the building’s vaulted ceiling, covered up elegantly carved balusters with railing display boxes and bleached stately koa columns a dull gray. Hereniko’s and his students’ criticisms notwithstanding, Polynesian Hall was long overdue for a serious makeover.

Now, after three years and $16 million, it’s had that makeover. Bishop Museum reopened Polynesian Hall on September 21, giving it a new name—Pacific Hall— and a clear story to tell. The building has been carefully restored: Its elegantly arched ceiling has been reclaimed, its abundant koa wood finishes restored and forty-two display cases (careful re-creations of the originals) have reappeared on the exhibit floor. “Bishop Museum believes that the building itself is an integral part of the story that they are trying to tell,” says architect Glenn Mason of Mason Architects, which led the restoration effort.

The renovation team, which also included acclaimed museum design firm Ralph Applebaum Associates among others, did significant infrastructure work, not only renovating but repairing extensive termite damage as well as updating the hall’s climate control and lighting systems. Pacific Hall’s only wholly new architectural features are the inlaid wood map of the Pacific Ocean that sits in the middle of the first floor and a sweeping grand staircase to the second-floor exhibits.

With its elaborate finishes restored, the Victorian-era building is arguably now Bishop Museum’s most traditional-looking exhibit space. But Pacific Hall’s story— the origins of Pacific peoples and their settlement of the “Blue Continent”—and the manner in which that story is told are decidedly cutting-edge. For instance, instead of organizing exhibits by location and around time periods, Pacific Hall presents the story conceptually, through a series of “story cases” located on the first floor. “Gods and Ancestors,” “The Resources of the Sea” and “Navigation and Trade,” among others, present artifacts not only in conjunction with similar objects from other cultures, but also alongside items from different periods of time. For instance, in one of the displays in “Gods and Ancestors,” ancient stone idols from the Marquesas Islands are displayed next to intricately woven, contemporary “church hats” from the Cook Islands and the Gilbert Islands. The artifacts are accompanied by chants, hymns and commentary from cultural practitioners and scholars throughout the Pacific—and suddenly the Blue Continent doesn’t seem so vast anymore.

Noelle Kahanu, Bishop Museum’s director of community affairs, says the decision to present the museum’s extensive collection in such a multifaceted manner was driven partly by the small size of the hall, but it also aligns perfectly with the traditional Hawaiian view of the region.

“Hawaiian Hall is very expansive, and we tell the ‘one story culture’ there,” says Kahanu, referring to Bishop Museum’s main exhibition space, which is several times larger than Pacific Hall. “This space [Pacific Hall] is much smaller, and yet we have many more stories to tell. Hawaiians had a deep awareness of their connection with the other islands throughout the Pacific. There is a Hawaiian legend that the world is located inside a giant gourd. When I look at Pacific Hall’s ceiling, with its arches, beams and rafters, I’m reminded of a gourd and feel the interconnectedness of the region.”

“You can see artifacts in any museum,” says Peter Krape, who became a museum docent after retiring from his job at Pearl Harbor ten years ago. “Pacific Hall’s exhibits are the first time that archeological evidence is presented with linguistic evidence alongside pottery shards, and then all that is put into context with other cultures. That’s very innovative.”

In addition to the story cases, the first floor features two cases that show some of the museum’s most prized holdings. One displays a Tahitian mourning costume that was worn by a priest or a close relative of the deceased. Captain James Cook collected the shimmering garments made of feathers and pearl shells; it’s one of only three that remain in the world. There is also the Canoe Models Showcase that spans the east wall and features eleven large canoe models from around the Pacific.

While the first floor’s exhibits may focus on the artistic and spiritual components of the Pacific’s story, the second floor is all about science. Its exhibits feature major discoveries made by the museum’s archeologists over the past century; most cover discoveries made since 1950, when radiocarbon dating and other technologies significantly expanded the scope and type of research. Highlights include a replica of a canoe paddle that is nearly seven thousand years old, one of the oldest in the world, discovered in Southeast China. The museum’s archeologists believe the Hemudu culture, which hails from the east coasts of China and Taiwan, is the common ancestor of cultures in Polynesia, Micronesia and some coastal areas of Melanesia.

In addition display cases in the second-floor gallery teach visitors about the methods that archeologists use. There is an interactive “How We Know” panel, for example, that explains why stratigraphy, which refers to the layer of soil where artifacts are located, is so important to reconstructing the stories these artifacts tell. It also shows people how researchers identify the microscopic remains of the “canoe plants” that people carried with them on their voyages.

“One display case includes fishhooks recovered from Hawaiian archeological sites. What is unique about these artifacts is that they are displayed together with the tools that were used to manufacture them,” says Dr. Mara Mulrooney, assistant archeologist at Bishop Museum. “Some are complete, while others are in various stages of production. This means that people can not only marvel at the intricacies of the finished product, but they can also learn about the process that went into manufacturing them.”

The most visually arresting exhibit of the second floor, if not the entire hall, is Anu‘u Nu‘u ka ‘Ike (the many levels and planes of wisdom and insight), a three-dimensional mural that imagines the sights, sounds and experiences of a trip on a voyaging canoe. The mural, which sits at the top of the grand staircase directly opposite a large map that chronicles the migration of the Pacific, features a giant he‘e (octopus) surrounded by layers and layers of ocean life and abstract shapes and forms that express the movements of breezes and ocean currents. A dark sphere could be the moon, a fish eye or the center of the universe. A collaborative effort, the multifaceted artwork was created by local artists Al Lagunero, Meleanna Meyer, Harinani Orme, Kahi Ching and Solomon Enos, along with more than two dozen students, who ranged in age from 10 to 21.

Opposite the piece hangs an authentic Fijian fishing canoe. With its pandanus sail ready to be unfurled, it seems like the canoe is on the verge of racing toward the mural. It is the past meeting the future and, for museum docent Krape, a perfect image for Pacific Hall. “Forget about Kirk and Spock,” he says. “Pacific Hall’s story is about amazing people jumping into a canoe and sailing to the great beyond.”

As for Hereniko, he sees the remaking of Pacific Hall as a huge leap forward in how the Pacific’s story is told; he gave the keynote address when the hall reopened in September. He points to improvement after improvement; for example, the seamless integration of digital imaging into the hall’s exhibits, especially the large video screen that provides an ever-changing background for the sailing canoe. “It’s an acknowledgment that we’re in the twenty-first century and have a visual culture,” Hereniko says. “Even more importantly, moving images aren’t static. They’re alive.”