Bishop Museum - Honolulu


Story: Norman Sung
Photography: Norman Sung
Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What Hawai'i, and Polynesia, are all about

I had a chance to spend more than half-a-day in the Bishop Museum early June this year and it was a most memorable and fascinating experience.

Housed in a grand building and grounds on a hill overlooking downtown Honolulu, it was built by an American who married into the Hawai'ian Royal Family (Kamehameha Dynasty) after his wife died, over 100 years ago. Originally intended as a repository for the family's fortunes, it became a cultural research institution and a collection of artifacts from across Polynesia (which includes Hawai'i) from New Zealand to Papua New Guinea to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Within the impressive elegance of the fine wood and iron works in the interior, the museum is laid out to trace the history of Polynesian peoples over a 10,000 year period: the migration patterns starting from South Eastern China near Taiwan (and on Taiwan itself, where their descendants still live and are working to maintain some of the cultural practices), then their dispersion across the Pacific southward and eastwards. The three-storey museum is laid out to provide focus on different regions, as well as groupings of artifacts from the feather staffs (kāhili) of the Hawai'ian nobility (ali'i) to objects such as fish nets and hooks, taro knives, woven matts, meat platters, tattoo pattern moulds across Polynesia. Many of these objects are stunningly fine works of art.

The Hawaiian Islands were amongst the last of their migrations destinations: while there is evidence they were reached as early as 300 BC, it is generally thought that the group that established the form of Hawaiian society up until the time of European discovery (late 1700s) and subsequent American colonization (1898) came around 1000 AD. Sailing several thousand miles from the south Pacific, they brought chickens, taros and other domesticated food sources with them on big canoes, navigated the distances largely based on star charts they mapped out quite effectively with strings and rocks in conjunction with reading the winds and waves patterns.

While we have probably all been over-exposed to tourist brochure images of smiling women swaying hula moves with flowers in their hair and swaying palm trees above predictable surfs and the white sand beach of Waikīkī with surfer dudes wiggling around in death-defying stunts, nary a word on such glossies about what real Hawai'ian society was like, nor what really happened in the past few hundred years. This is THE place to get those stories and perspectives.

Spoiler alert: rigid caste society with many prohibitions (kāpu), having to change their society once they realized that outsiders have discovered them starting with Captain Cook that included inviting Christian missionaries (pattern repeated across Polynesia), American coup d'état that eventually led them to Statehood and later the Apology Resolution, hula and use of Hawai'ian language being banned as being too pagan – some lifted as late as the early 1980s....

I think having that historical understanding and perspective is important to make sense of some of the issues of today, such as the fight over the Thirty Metre Telescope on Mauna Kea, over which the Hawai'i Supreme Court just ruled last week (late Oct 2018) in favour of proceeding. Also the distinction between being Hawai'ian versus being Resident of Hawai'i even if one was born there. Or why the Chinese name for Honolulu, commonly used till this day, literally means “sandalwood mountain” (檀香山). Even understanding chance encounter conversations better, such as the one a colleague and I had with a local restaurant / bar owner on Kauai. We somehow ended up talking about Cuba, and my colleague asked if the owner had ever visited Cuba. When I reminded my colleague that they were Americans, the owner quickly retorted with “Americans now, Polynesians before”. Having a better understanding of the Hawai'ian culture and psyche through the museum visit allowed me to perceive the depth of that four word reply.

Two days after I visited the museum, I met a retired woman from Upstate New York at the BnB I was staying in Hilo on the Big Island who had worked with the museum and had gone on several archeological / anthropological field trips under the tutelage of one of its leading experts to Rapa Nui and other islands over the years. She learned a lot from them, and described the good work they continue to do to further draw interest in traditional Hawai'ian culture and revive some of the skills, such organizing trips youths to sail around the islands using traditional Polynesian techniques including a replica of the star map compass on display.

I also recommend that in conjunction with the Bishop Museum visit, take a tour of the Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Park on the west side of the Big Island (about 20 miles south of Kona) to really get a good appreciation of ancient Hawai'ian culture. Besides being an impressive site on its own on the ocean front, with its Royal Grounds, the burial grounds and heiau, and the various game boards, you understand the function of the 400 year old Great Wall and what that meant for either transgressors of kāpu or the warriors who lost battles.

And if you are renting a car and are driving there, try to tune in to the Kapa radio station. Besides those gentle traditional Hawai'ian music that get you into the headspace as you negotiate between boring suburbs and hair-raising cliff drops, some of the commentary that you might get can be interestingly insightful – such as what I heard, about making ham and cheese sandwiches when you really feel haole.

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