Hands-on Museum

The venerable Bishop Museum steps into the 21st century with its new Science Adventure Center. Go ahead–touch the exhibits.

If visitors to the Bishop Museum remember only one thing, it’s usually the huge sperm whale skeleton that hangs over Hawaiian Hall. The museum may have created an icon to rival the whale, though: a two-story, stylized, metallic volcano that will erupt several times a day, flinging up glowing liquid and steam just a few feet from visitors.

It’s the centerpiece of the museum’s new Science Adventure Center, a $17-million educational playground full of hands-on exhibits and impressive displays designed to bring natural science studies to life. “It’s totally interactive and immersive,” says William Brown, Bishop Museum president. “You’re either interacting with it, or you’re stuck in the middle of it, experiencing it.”

Sure enough, the volcano, modeled after Kilauea’s Pu’u O’o vent, is actually hollow, and packed with things to do inside. Although it won’t actually be spewing real magma (which is apparently something of a fire hazard), museum staff will really be melting rock into lava underneath it, using a furnace in the Hot Spot Theatre.

Elsewhere in the 16,500-square-foot center, kids can pilot a remote-controlled submersible through a 14-foot-deep ocean simulation tank, create their own mini volcanic eruption using hot wax and check out live native insects and other biological specimens in a simplified lab environment.

The trippy Origins Tunnel art at the Bishop Museum’s new Science Adventure Center was created by local students.
photo: Olivier Koning

It’s fun stuff, and adults will get just as much of a kick out of the custom-designed exhibits as the children. Everything is educational, as well, Brown says, “We want to excite and inspire, and to some degree convey basic information about science. We hope to get kids excited, so they want to study this some more.”

In addition to working with local schools to coordinate the exhibits with fifth- and eighth-grade curriculums, the Bishop Museum has even tapped students from Jarrett Middle School, Dole Middle School, Hakipu’u Learning Center, Halau Lokahi and ‘Aiea Intermediate to create the papier-mâché plants and animals lining the Origins Tunnel.

The tunnel is actually one of the center’s most memorable exhibits, even if it’s less scientifically rigorous than some of the others. With day-glo paint everywhere, and illuminated solely by black light, the tunnel looks less like an underground lava tube than an underground rave, but piped-in nature sounds and chanting from the kumulipo (the Hawaiian creation chant) make it an impressive experience.