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Destination: Honolulu : Keepers of the Hawaiian Flame : Fueled by islanders' growing pride in their culture and history, Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace spruce up their public offerings

November 06, 1994|RICHARD HALLORAN | Halloran is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer

HONOLULU — For Hawaii-bound tourists in search of more than a suntan, two 19th-Century Honolulu institutions, the Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace, provide fascinating and contrasting glimpses into Hawaii's past and present.

The 105-year-old Bishop, spread across several buildings on a 12-acre campus in a residential area northwest of downtown Honolulu, is reaching out to visitors in a fresh effort to move beyond its academic underpinnings as a world-class center for Pacific studies.

And at Iolani, a downtown landmark since its completion in 1882, more than $6 million has been spent restoring the last residence of Hawaiian royalty--symbol of a Hawaiian ruler's obsession with European pomp and circumstance, and, to some, an important site in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

A decade ago, the Bishop inaugurated a community-outreach program that includes such popular activities as Family Sunday, a first-Sunday-of-the-month celebration when the $7.95 per-person admission charge is waived for residents, and the museum grounds are filled with picnickers, food and craft booths and local entertainers.

More recently, it has joined Hawaii's tourism efforts to give visitors greater insight into Hawaiian culture.

Starting in January, for example, plans call for the Bishop Museum to play host to the Brothers Cazimero, popular Honolulu entertainers who will perform Hawaiian songs and dances three nights a week in the museum's Hawaiian Hall. The same month, the museum acquires the Hawaii Maritime Center on the Honolulu waterfront, close by the newly-renovated Aloha Tower. And in a pilot program launched this summer, three rotating, Bishop-sponsored exhibits of Hawaiian culture greet visitors in the lobby of the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. The "Share Hawaii" program will be expanded over the next few months to five other still-to-be-chosen hotels, one on Oahu and four on the Neighbor Islands .

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The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by merchant, banker and philanthropist Charles Reed Bishop, who'd arrived here from Newburyport, Mass., in 1846. Bishop's inspiration was his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last surviving direct descendant of King Kamehameha I. Once the owner of 12% of Hawaiian land, she and her husband dreamed of creating a permanent museum to preserve her extensive collection of family artifacts.

Today, many of the princess's treasures, including capes made from thousands of tiny, tightly spaced feathers, are on display in Hawaiian Hall--a stern-looking structure with a lava rock exterior that houses the museum's best exhibit. Dominated by a papier-mache-covered, 50-foot sperm whale that dangles from the ceiling of an open atrium, the Hawaiian Hall concentrates on the era that begins with King Kamehameha I--the warrior who conquered the islands at the beginning of the 19th Century--and continues to Queen Liliuokalani's forced abdication (and end of the Hawaiian monarchy) in 1893. Also on display is a Hawaiian grass shack ( pili hale ), built in the 18th Century in Kauai's Milolii Valley and reconstructed inside the Hawaiian Hall in 1902.

A display of chronology in the Bishop's Hawaiian Hall notes that King Kamehameha IV, who ruled the islands from 1855 to 1863, was enchanted by the British monarchy and brought the trappings of the Court of St. James to Hawaii. And that deliberate borrowing is underscored at Iolani Palace, built by King Kalakaua in 1879.

The small, ornate palace, whose design has been called "American Florentine," was constructed for the then-enormous sum of $360,000 (not counting the 225 pieces of furniture custom-made in Boston and shipped around Cape Horn). As one of the volunteer guides on the 45-minute tour noted: "This illustrates the complexity that contact with other cultures brought us."

"Old Hawaii" is not much in evidence at Iolani, save for the stunning koa and other native woods used in banisters, paneling and some furniture. (The still-gleaming floors of imported Douglas fir, meanwhile, are preserved in part by requiring visitors to don special booties that cover their shoes.) Instead, the emphasis is on European opulence. A state dining room is set with silver and china imported from the Continent. The king's library, where one of the city's earliest telephones was installed, is filled with high-back, Elizabethan-style chairs.

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