Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

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If your wife were a princess, wouldn’t you want to dedicate a museum to her? Of course you would—and for Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, what a splendid dedication it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself: before I discuss the appealing vibe and the remarkable Hawaiian-culture holdings of the Bishop, let’s talk about museum tours.

Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Queen Lili'uokalani

Tours, particularly historical tours, can often seem flat and formulaic, with guides droning on about dull exhibits. Happily, the Hawaii Monarch’s Tour, which includes presentations at Honolulu’s Iolani Palace and the nearby Bishop Museum, is lively and fun—in no small part because Hawaii’s history is fascinating, though not always uplifting.

Iolani Palace. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Before we even arrived at the beauty (and the heartbreak) of the Iolani Palace, our driver Matt had, in the short drive from the hotel to the palace, blessed us with many informative asides about Hawaii, historical buildings we passed on the drive, and cultural tidbits, all delivered in a friend’s conversational tone. At the palace itself, we admired its compact, stately banyan grove. The palace building is stately on its own, though not imposingly large. The building was completed in 1882, and filled with royals until the monarchy’s overthrow in 1893. There’s a short but helpful video prior to the tour that reviews that bit of infamy.

Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The Overthrow

Our guide took us on a leisurely, informative stroll through the two public levels of the building, which has a broad, splendidly restored staircase of Hawaiian woods that takes visitors up to the Great Hall, which is, well, great. There are lots of portraits of Hawaiian kings and queens, included among them King Kalākaua and notably, Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch. Her portrait was painted before she was deposed in a bloodless coup engineered by American businessmen with sharp eyes toward profit, and not posterity.

Throne Room, King Kalākaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The queen was arrested and tried for questionable complicity in a plot to restore her to the throne, and subsequently imprisoned for a time in a second-floor room of the palace, part of the tour. But there are more jolly aspects to Iolani: the gleamingly gilded Throne Room, with its scepter and crowns and jewels, the cool confines of the Blue Room, the spread of the Dining Hall, and the ornate Music Room, all with royal appointments and furnishings. 

Sceptre, Iolani Palace. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Blue Room. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Chandelier, Iolani Palace. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Yellow room, Iolani Palace. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

We also spent time in the separate bedrooms of the king and the queen, which are decorated with a royal touch. Interestingly, after the U.S. annexed Hawaii, much of the original furniture was sold at auction, but since the beginning of the palace’s restoration in the late 1960s, a number of pieces, known only by original photographs, have turned up in unexpected places, such as a table found in the governor's mansion in Iowa. 

Royal bedroom, Iolani Palace. From  Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The Bishop Beckons (and Presents!)

The Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

We zipped from the Iolani to the Bishop Museum Café for our provided lunch. My Kalua pork put a smile in my stomach, as the veggie wrap did for my sweetheart Alice. The pork was warm, but not as warm as the lava in the Hot Spot Rock demo we went to, one of the Bishop’s shows, open to any museum attendee. The museum pretends this is a show for kids, but, are you kidding—watching hot lava being poured by one of the museum’s resident science educators, and then watching (and listening) to it cool with loud crackles? This kid liked it, muchly. The presentation included lots of info on Hawaiian volcanos and lava itself.

Hot Spot rock demo - with lava! From  Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Hot Spot lava demonstration, Bishop Museum. From  Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Then we sauntered over to The Sky Tonight, the museum’s planetarium presentation. The show presents a mapped image of the previous night’s sky from our Oahu perspective, with entertaining explanations of the constellations, particularly the Zodiac myths as related to the Greek gods. Lot of fun here, and I was particularly delighted to discover, after not having seen a planetarium show in probably 25 years, that they still play Pink Floyd for the “cosmic” demonstrations.

The Sky Tonight, The J. Watamull Planetarium projector, Bishop Museum. From  Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The J. Watamull Planetarium projector

A Handful of History

Whoops, got caught in showtime. I’ll back up here and ground you, particularly since I opened with the bit about the princess: The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in memory of his wife Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a royal descendant of King Kamehameha I (the fabled “Kamehameha the Great”). Princess Bernice had an extensive collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, which have been prolifically added to in subsequent years. The millions of items (including 22 million biological specimens!) are housed in various halls on the grounds, making up the largest assemblage of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural and natural-history collections in the world. The Bishop also hosts traveling exhibitions and limited-time programs.

At the Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Bishop Museum display. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

We took the Treasures of the Past tour in the massive three-level Hawaiian Hall, but before that we were enchanted by a greeting song in Hawaiian sung with feeling by one of the docents, Hercules. 

The docent Hercules at the Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour
Hercules

Our guide took us to the middle of the ground-floor Hall and told us a series of stories that explained some of the legends and myths of Hawaiian lore. “It is all about the stories for us, and the stories are endless,” she told us. The Hawaiian Hall has a gigantic sperm whale (its bones are real) hanging above, dugout canoes and aquatic beings suspended above, and all manner of statuary on the ground floor, with a spectrum of exhibit booths hosting representations and overviews of gods and legends. As the museum explains:

The three floors of Hawaiian Hall take visitors on a journey through the different realms of Hawai‘i:

•    The first floor is the realm of Kai Ākea which represents the Hawaiian gods, legends, beliefs, and the world of pre-contact Hawai‘i.
•    The second floor, Wao Kanaka, represents the realm where people live and work; focusing on the importance of the land and nature in daily life.
•    The third floor, Wao Lani, is the realm inhabited by the gods; here, visitors will learn about the ali‘i and key moments in Hawaiian history.

Besides the Hawaiian Hall, there’s a Sports Hall (check out the shot of Duke Kahanamoku and his buff brothers), a Pacific Hall that reviews the dispersed peoples and cultures of vast Oceania, a native garden, a Science Adventure Center, and more. You can get into all kinds of ologies at the Bishop: Archaeology, Entomology, Ichthyology, Zoology and more. It’s a treasure land!

Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The god Kaneikokala in Hawaiian Hall (and it's a stone carving),  Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

The god Kaneikokala in Hawaiian Hall

 

Micronesian Pacific totem drums, Iolani Palace. From Digging Deeper into Hawaiian History on the Hawai’i Monarchs Tour

Micronesian totem drums

And if you’re on the Monarch’s Tour, you don’t have to go to any guided presentations—just wander about on your own; you’re guaranteed to discover something—many things—interesting. We were delighted with the two tours, but need to return to the Bishop—there just wasn’t enough time to catch it all, and there are a lot of things worth catching.

Getting There:

http://www.bishopmuseum.org/monarchstour/
http://www.bishopmuseum.org/
http://www.iolanipalace.org

 

Tom Bentley is a fiction writer, a business writer and editor, an essayist, and a travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His self-published book on finding and cultivating your writer's voice, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See was published in 2015. See his lurid website confessions and writing-life blog at www.tombentley.com. He would like you to pour him a Manhattan right at five.

Photos courtesy and copyright Alice Bourget and Tom Bentley

 

 

 

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