Wind back time just a few years, and the Victorian-era Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum appears, practically untouched since its 1893 construction.But rather than offering a pristine window into Hawai`i’s past, the founding icon of the state’s largest museum had become more embarrassing eyesore than grand showpiece. Inside the stifling three-story structure, every surface was blemished, alcoves cluttered with unrelated exhibits explaining Hawaiian culture as if it were dead, while antiquated lighting and ventilation rendered it impossible to show more than a tenth of the Museum’s vast collection.

Enter Ralph Appelbaum, the revolutionary museum designer arguably most celebrated for the emotionally challenging and technologically stunning Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.. Alongside a collaborative team, topped by historic restoration experts Mason Architects, and including scholars, designers, conservationists, artists, cultural practitioners, and Bishop Museum staff, in 2004 Ralph Appelbaum Associates began the process of the Hall’s challenging, five-year restoration and redesign, opened to the public for the first time August 8. Today the Hall shines as powerfully as it did when first opened, but has now been ushered into the 21st century as only Appelbaum could—with an evocative, modern way of telling an old, familiar tale.

“Our ultimate goal was to take this very beautiful Victorian museum and restore it to literally its original glory,” says a modest Appelbaum, who has worked in museum design for over 25 years and counts the Hall as his company’s 104th opening. “It’s a step back in time with certain touches of modernity to help you go deeper into the nature of the Hawaiian story.”

In the first stage of restoration, spearheaded by Mason Architects, the original Koa wood interior was meticulously returned to auburn perfection, and the painted columns to their original bronze patina. The Hale Pili, the sole example of an original Hawaiian hale (house), and model heiau (sacred temple) perch reconstructed on the polished mosaic-tiled ground floor. The beloved 55-foot sperm whale model was cleaned and returned to its original 1902 ceiling spot, joined now new stingray, ulua, a 14-foot Tiger Shark and other significant animal and ‘aumakua (guardian) models, as well as a century-old double-hull canoe. Koa window panels, fiber optic lighting and state-of-the-art climate controls were installed to meet global conservation standards and allow precious artifacts such as ali`i feather capes of Kamehameha the Great and Queen Lili‘uokalani, feather kahili standards, and basketry images to be displayed for the first time in generations.

This important work formed the foundation for what would be Appelbaum’s core challenge—narrating the story of the Hawaiian people through their voice, rather than an authoritative Western perspective. Because not only the Hall’s physical structure but also its interpretation of objects remained stuck in the 19th century. Previously, it might have talked about how taro was the main staple of the Hawaiian diet: “‘They’ prepared it by baking it in an underground oven,” explains project manager Noelle Kahanu. “It’s a ‘they’ and it’s past tense.” Appelbaum’s holistic redesign for the first time facilitates storytelling from a present-day “we” perspective. Quotes by modern practitioners appear alongside ancient objects, which will flank hands-on activities, contemporary Hawaiian art, chants, and video about current issues such as language, land claims, and statehood to show continuity of a living culture.

And the displays are organized so that visitors will experience the Hawaiian worldview of realms firsthand. The first floor is now Kai Akea, representing pre-contact times and the ancestral realm; the second is Wao Kanaka, the human realm, where people live, work, farm, and fish; the third is Wao Lani, of gods and ali`i. Each new exhibit and inner track of railing cases connect to the next, highlighting Hawaiian culture as it was and as it is lived and practiced today.

“Visitors won’t just be looking at objects through a window,” says Appelbaum, but actively engaging in an interactive journey through past and present Hawaiian culture—one he hopes will inspire fresh thinking and impassioned dialogue about the issues of today. “They’ll see Hawai`i through the eyes, words and objects of the people who loved it first.”

By Christine Thomas
Originally published in the summer 2009 issue of Modern Luxury Hawaii.

*Note: Since I was traveling in August, I missed the Hawaiian Hall’s grand opening and have only seen the hall with koa gleaming, hale pili and heiau near-completion, and sperm whale model clean and suspended in air. I hope this article inspires you to visit the Hall again, and again… I hear there is just so much to see and do it’s impossible to complete it all in one visit.