Insider’s Guide to Honolulu Museums
Camp near a volcano, walk through a haunted village, ride a historic train, fly into a dogfight, sit for a 1900s trial and 43 other cool things to try at O‘ahu’s museums.
CLIMB INTO THE COCKPIT OF A T6 TEXAN DURING PEARL HARBOR AVIATION MUSEUM’S ANNUAL OPEN COCKPIT DAY.
Photo: Olivier Koning
Creating our short list of the best adventures at O‘ahu institutions wasn’t easy. Today, places that once just featured spaces for hushed contemplation are finding new ways to engage us in the active learning of history, art and culture. We started with the Hawai‘i Museums Association, which has been connecting the state’s museums for 50 years.
We went through its list of members, looking for museums, archives and historic homes that regularly offer interesting events, activities or unique opportunities. Finally, the HONOLULU team added favorite smaller or lesser-known places where people are working to save and share stories about specific communities or eras.
The result is a roundup of 15 institutions of various sizes and ages. We tell their stories, give you the key details and highlight our “must-do” activities.
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Walk into Hangar 79 on Ford Island and you’ll find tourists taking cellphone photos, listening to headset tours in six different languages. Look up and everything changes. Above, turquoise-and-white glass windows lining the building still show the scars of bullets from Japan’s attack on Dec. 7, 1941. That day, workers at what was then a maintenance and engine repair shop for aircraft quickly found themselves under fire. The shattered panes were never removed—a stark reminder for wartime employees that they were still operating in a combat zone.
Honolulu Museum of Art and Spalding House
The Honolulu Museum of Art is a treasure trove of Asian, European, Hawaiian, American and contemporary art. It houses more than 10,000 ukiyo-e woodblock prints, including “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Hokusai, as well as works by Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georgia O’Keeffe. Even the ceiling displays works of art—look up near the Doris Duke Theatre and you’ll find Dale Chihuly’s blown-glass sculpture, “Reef.”
Hawai‘i State Art Museum
The Hawai‘i State Art Museum, or HiSAM, is the free museum operating as a venue for the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Its three galleries include a long-term showcase of Hawai‘i art and rotating contemporary exhibitions. The museum also includes work from the Art in Public Places Program, the first of its kind in the U.S. when it debuted in 1967, dedicated to acquiring, preserving and displaying works of art that relate to the Hawaiian Islands or the culture of its people.
Hawaiian Mission Houses
Nearly 200 years ago, the first congregational missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i and built houses meant to serve as community gathering places and cultural centers. Here, missionaries shared sermons, enjoyed theater and mele and operated Hawai‘i’s first printing press. The mission houses were a site to create and share culture. Two centuries later, they still are.
Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village
Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village has faced its share of challenges. It’s been without an executive director since 2014; it struggles, like many nonprofits, to collect enough donations and grants; and it’s sometimes home to squatters.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum
They come every Wednesday, carrying their knives and bunches of lauhala, walking into the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum as if they own the place—which, as Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, in a sense they do. Setting up on tables outside the Hawaiian Hall, they start weaving and carving, “using Wednesdays here as a gathering place,” says Melanie Ide, the museum’s new president and executive officer. Visitors are encouraged to join in. “Bring your blanket, find some shade, do a little work.”
WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument
Spread over nine sites across three states, the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument honors the people, places and events of World War II in the Pacific theater. The Hawai‘i monument includes five sites at Pearl Harbor: the USS Arizona Memorial, an observation platform straddling the sunken hull of the battleship, the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed onboard; the USS Oklahoma Memorial, with tall rows of white marble columns representing the 429 crew members who died aboard the battleship; the USS Utah Memorial, dedicated to the memory of 64 officers and men who were killed in the attack (and only open to military personnel); assorted mooring quays at Pearl Harbor; and chief petty officer bungalows on Ford Island.
Queen Emma Summer Palace
“Sometimes I feel like it’s a secret,” Caroline Bond Davis says as we walk through the grounds of Hānaiakamalama, also known as Queen Emma Summer Palace. The cool breeze blowing through Nu‘uanu perfectly illustrates why Queen Emma chose to spend her summers in this home given to her by her uncle, John Young II, in 1857.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
Best known as the site of the official end of World War II, the USS Missouri makes a perfect bookend to the USS Arizona Memorial just a few hundred yards off its bow.
‘Iolani Palace has shone as a beacon of innovation since 1882, when King Kalākaua first moved in. Known for his scientific curiosity, Kalākaua arranged for electricity to light the exterior of the palace in 1886 after meeting Thomas Edison in New York. Interior lights soon followed. The White House in Washington, D.C., installed electricity five years later.
Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center
Though passersby may see Ali‘iōlani Hale as just a historic building behind the Kamehameha statue, the structure today hosts the Hawai‘i Supreme Court as well as a center dedicated to educating the public about Hawai‘i’s unique legal history.
Hawaiian Railway Society
In the 1950s and ’60s, kids in Waialua grew up playing on a broken-down locomotive parked in front of the old sugar mill. In 1970, Waialua Agricultural Co. decided to scrap the rusting steam-powered W.A.Co. 6. A small group fought to save it and started the Hawai‘i chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, now called the Hawaiian Railway Society.
Home of the Brave Museum
The Home of the Brave Museum in Kaka‘ako, containing the largest private collection of World War II memorabilia and artifacts in the Pacific, nearly closed its doors forever last December. Happily, the community donated a few thousand dollars through GoFundMe and the state of Hawai‘i stepped in with a grant for another year of operation. “These Department of Defense guys visited to verify and validate the museum because they’re the ones issuing the funds and just like everybody else, they were blown away,” says owner Glen Tomlinson. We’re glad. At what other museum can you sit on an Army-issue Harley-Davidson, man a .50-caliber machine gun or climb inside a 1945 Ford Army Jeep? —James Charisma
901 Waimanu St., (808) 396-8112, homeofthebravetours.com
Honolulu Fire Museum and Education Center
PHOTO: David Croxford
A firefighter narrates each tour, sharing the history of the Honolulu Fire Department, the only fire department in the country begun by a monarchy (in 1851). The center features historic gear, including vintage vehicles, photos and memorabilia in a 1928 Spanish mission revival building (next to the modern headquarters of HFD), with a tower equipped with hooks and pulleys that were used to hang and dry the old cotton hoses. The second floor includes some kid-sized uniforms and hats that younger visitors can try on. The 90-minute tour wraps up with a chance to ask questions about everything from firehouse life to smoke detectors. —Robbie Dingeman
PHOTO: David Croxford
620 South St., free guided tours every third Saturday of the month, (808) 723-7167, honolulu.gov