A Day at the Bishop Museum

by Gray Cargill on March 26, 2014

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Visiting a museum probably isn’t at the top of your list when planning a Waikiki Beach vacation. But for a crash course in Hawaiian culture and history, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum should be. People will tell you it’s a great “rainy day activity,” but I wouldn’t wait for a rainy day to visit. Believe it or not, it was the sleeper hit of my January trip to Honolulu.

The Bishop Museum consists of several buildings, so grab a map and schedule when you buy your ticket. The grounds are lovely and uncrowded and there are benches here and there to sit and relax. I had braced myself to be surrounded by kids on field trips here, but they never materialized. Actually, there were far more adults without children—a pleasant surprise for this solo traveler.


Flowers on the Bishop Museum grounds

The Bishop has beautiful grounds.


The Museum

If you only have time for one thing at the Bishop Museum, make it the Hawaiian Hall Gallery. Hawaiian Hall is an impressive stone building with gorgeous architecture and beautiful wood details inside, including a grand double staircase, archways and railings. The three-story Gallery focuses on Hawaiian history and culture—mythology, politics, music and art, economy, immigration, and more.

Here, you will learn the history of the royal family and how Hawaiians’ way of life has evolved over the centuries. There are many artifacts on display here, along with a good timeline of the history of the islands. Hawaiian Hall also houses exhibit space and the Pacific Gallery, along with the Atrium Lobby where some presentations take place.


Whale at Bishop Museum

The Bishop’s whale


When you enter Hawaiian Hall, your eyes will immediately be drawn to the 55-foot sperm whale skeleton hanging over the Hall; half of it is covered in papier-mâché to make the whale appear life-like, and the other half shows the exposed skeleton so you get a sense of the anatomy of a whale. It weighs 4,300 pounds. (There are also a shark and sting ray hanging from the ceiling.) At one end of the hall is a traditional grass house that was relocated here from Kaua’i and is one of the last examples of its kind in Hawaii.


Hale moe

Hale Pili, the grass house

Show and Tell

While the museum itself was interesting, what really made this a fun day for me were the tours and presentations. They take place every half hour throughout the day, kicking off at 10am with a “Welcome Tour”. Do yourself a favor and make the time to participate in at least a few of them. Honestly, there are so many good ones, you start to wonder “When am I going to find time to see the exhibits?”

I started with a tour in Hawaiian Hall called the Hawaiian Origins Tour, which walked us through the mythology of the islands. It was fascinating. From there, I back-tracked to the Planetarium, located near the Museum entrance. As a life-long scifi fan obsessed with space travel, it might not surprise you that I was more excited for this show than any of the kids in the audience!



The Planetarium at the Bishop Museum


I sat in on a presentation called “The Sky Tonight” in a domed room with comfortable, theater-style seating. The Planetarium at the Bishop has a high-tech telescope capable of projecting a high-definition starscape onto the curved ceiling, as well as a computer-generated starscape that took us on a virtual trip through space. Our astronomer was a great presenter, funny and informative, with obvious enthusiasm for the subject. She walked us through all the constellations and where they would be at various times that night. Before we left, we were handed a star map so we could try to locate them ourselves that night.

From there, I crossed the Great Lawn to catch the lava melting demonstration at the Mamiya Science Adventure Center. This demonstration was hot stuff. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Here, two scientists took turns describing how a volcano creates an island over thousands and thousands of years. They noted that the Big Island of Hawaii is over 1 million years old. Did you know lava spun by the wind can produce “volcanic glass” in long strands as fine as human hair that can cut you? I did not, until this demonstration. They call it “Pele’s Hair.”


Model volcano

My lava pour videos didn’t turn out well, so this will have to suffice: “Lava” in the top of the model volcano at the Science Hall.


They handed around some volcanic rocks and crystals that were found at Diamond Head crater and mistaken for diamonds (hence the name Diamond Head). Then one of the scientists donned a heat-resistant suit and helmet and stepped into a see-through enclosure for the lava pour. The lava had been heated in ovens to 2,000 degrees, they told us.  He poured some into a cold steel container and showed us the consistency of the lava while it was hot, and also passed around a piece of volcanic lava that had been completely cooled into volcanic glass.

Afterwards, I took some time to check out the science hall, which is full of hands-on, interactive displays showing how tsunamis occur and things like that. Kids would love it, but I thought it was pretty interesting, too. There was also a large model volcano in the hall. (And a bug big enough to saddle and ride. I hope to God it wasn’t life-sized.)


Big bug

My cat was smaller than this bug.


The last presentation I attended was on hula and it took place in the Atrium Lobby of Hawaiian Hall. Our presenter was a hula academic, who explained the various elements of hula for the audience: dance, song (“mele”), instruments, and storytelling. She noted that the instruments used in hula are made out of items from the native environment, like drums made of gourds and rattles made from bamboo.

But hula is about more than song and dance. There’s a philosophy at work here, too: “It’s not so much that the hula or the instruments are supposed to be malleable to you, but that you are supposed to grow into them,” she told us. As an example, she spoke of the pebbles used as instruments in hula: You find four small stones and insert them loosely between your fingers and click them together.

She noted that if the pebbles don’t feel right for any reason, you might be tempted to change their shape by chipping or sanding them down—but don’t. Just accept that these particular pebbles are not for you. When you find the pebbles that are right for you, you’ll know it.

What a great philosophy, and applicable to so many aspects of our lives.

After explaining all this, she taught us some lyrics to sing and the hula dance movements that went along with the words and we all practiced it. It was a fun way to end the session.


Hawaiian Hall

Hawaiian Hall


If You Get Hungry….

If you’re spending several hours at the museum and need a bite to eat, the Cafe Pulama, located in the Jabulka Pavilion, is pretty much the only game in town. Luckily, the food here is good and cheap. There is indoor and outdoor seating, so your bases are covered no matter what the weather is like.

This must be a popular cafe, because they were sold out of many food items by the time I arrived to eat at 1:15. About the only thing left was a turkey sandwich; but it turns out, it was a pretty good turkey sandwich, grilled on thick slices of bread with a tasty side of macaroni salad. Service in the kitchen was very slow, though. It took them a very long time to make that sandwich. I could only finish half of it before I needed to leave for the hula presentation.


Cafe exterior

Cafe exterior


Other things to be found at the Bishop are the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in Paki Hall, a Native Hawaiian Garden, and the Castle Memorial Building. With all the exhibits, presentations, and tours, you can easily spend a very interesting half-day to full day at the Bishop Museum. Just don’t wait for it to rain in Honolulu, or you might miss all the fun!


Bishop Museum Panorama

Panorama of the Bishop Museum taken from the Science Hall


What You Need to Know:

Location: 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu
How to Get There:

  • Rent a car and drive yourself there; there is plenty of free parking.
  • Take a cab, though it may be expensive.
  • Take the #2 bus (toward School St./Middle St.) from Waikiki; it will take about 45 minutes. Get off at the intersection of School and Kapalama Streets (you’ll probably need to ask the driver to let you know when you get there). Cross School Street at the intersection and walk down Kapalama St. At the intersection of Kapalama and Bernice Streets, turn right. You’ll see the Museum grounds on the left hand side of Bernice St. Entrance is about 200 feet up the street on the left.

Hours: Wednesday-Monday, 9am-5pm. Closed on Tuesdays and Christmas Day.
Admission: $19.95 (adult), $16.95 (seniors and guests of military or locals), $12.95 (military and locals).
Photos and video are allowed, but not for commercial use.

Andi March 27, 2014 at 7:39 am

What an interesting place!

Gray Cargill March 28, 2014 at 6:00 am

It really is, Andi.

Jason March 26, 2014 at 7:05 pm

I also loved the tours, but most especially the FREE hula lessons. You’re right, Gray. The Bishop Museum is fantastic and definitely a must-see for trips to Oahu.

Gray Cargill March 26, 2014 at 8:27 pm

It is great, isn’t it, Jason? So glad I got a chance to go this time around.

Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren March 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Really good to know! I love a beach vacation just as much as the next person but I can get a bit restless when I’m lounging all day. I love sightseeing and this is totally something I’ll check out next time I’m in Honolulu! Thanks for sharing.

Happy travels 🙂

Gray Cargill March 26, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Definitely add it to your list, Lauren!

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