Hawaii Art Adventure

Finding fun for every age at Honolulu's museums

Wyatt and Sky take in the lawn and garden at the Spalding House.


Growing up in Hawaii means that my children are regularly surrounded by beauty. When we visit beaches, hike trails or stop at scenic overlooks, we talk about the things we find the prettiest. We often disagree. At Lanai Lookout, I think the best sight is Molokai on a day so clear you can see the fields. Henry and Wyatt like to watch the water rush back into the ocean after it smashes up on the rocks. My daughter appreciates the way the lines of the rocks are so smooth they look like brownie batter.

 A trip to the local museums seemed like an opportunity for the children to learn more about how different things appear beautiful to different people. I have childhood memories of visiting museums and, well, let’s just say I was a little worried that museum day was unlikely to be something they would consider an adventure.

We started with the Honolulu Art Museum Spalding House (formerly known as The Contemporary Museum), and I took them straight out to the lawn, which is a landscaping masterpiece. I pointed out that the gardens had originally been designed in the 1930s, and now, 80 years later, they likely have matured into just what the designer had envisioned. We walked and ran and hid along the pathway that zigs and zags along the hillside, and stopped at a well-marked Autograph tree. All of our group, who ranged from age 5 to 12, found their favorite notes written on the leaves as they climbed around under the tree.

The gallery exhibit was focused around words. Manuscripts and illustrations from books, including the Bible, were printed in small, black and white text, and were more interesting to me than to the kids. But the proverbs painted on the wall in different colors and sizes got their attention. The room contained tables and pads with old drawings on them and space below to write a proverb, as well as a wall to display them on. The pencils were connected to the tables via a string that dropped through a hole and held a weight that hung like a pendulum under the table, and this proved equally entertaining to the younger children. Scrolling words on a digitally lit sign had the kids waiting for the next word. A poem hung two stories and coiled on the ground, written on what appeared to be a fire hose. Outside again, we found a giant metal wall covered in the biggest version of refrigerator poetry magnets I’ve ever seen. At first, we read the phrases put together by visitors who had come before us. “The sheep are perfect,” and “man’s happiness is mother, money and wild booty,” were among my older children’s favorites. Then they happily compiled their own phrases for half an hour. Inexplicably, “I will have a very stinky arm” seemed to make them laugh the hardest.

We talked about the exhibit over lunch at the Spalding House Café. Wyatt liked when the letter “O” was a sun in one of the prints in the gallery, and we talked about other shapes that could be used for letters. Henry said you see that sometimes in company logos. Sky wanted to go back to the wall of words. The quiet café staff was welcoming to our table full of loud children, and patiently answered questions about the menu and told us about changes being made around the museum.

Sky at the entrance of the Spalding House Museum.

It was in the café that we found something the children couldn’t believe ever existed: a cigarette vending machine. This particular cigarette vending machine had been beautifully refurbished and now contained cigarette-box-size pieces of art. You purchase a token from the counter for $5, pull a handle based on the art on the outside of the box and get a surprise. Wyatt was happy to find a tiki necklace inside his.

Lunch was delicious, although a little fancy for the children. The menu contains salads, sandwiches, wraps and paninis, and a grilled cheese du jour. I hemmed and hawed between the buckwheat soba and quinoa salads, and in the end went with the quinoa. It was a perfect light, cool lunch. Our server, “Keola McAwesome” (I’m pretty sure that last name was made up) explained everything from “du jour” to “crostini” to the children and, in the end, grilled ham and cheese was good for them all. The homemade lemonade was delicious. We caught them after they had run out of Ottocake Cheesecake, a local treat I’ve yet to track down, but the gelato and strawberry cake made up for it. The art-appreciating staff even pretended not to notice when the younger children decided to walk the perimeter of the room and place a value on each piece of abstract art on the wall: “$4. Well, maybe $5, because it looks like he actually tried to make something in that corner . . . ” It might take a more mature audience than us to appreciate abstract art.  

While shopping for the holiday, I came across the perfect stocking stuffer: a set of magnetic poetry for our refrigerator. I’m hoping the gift will provide interesting exchanges of words and a fun reminder of our art adventure.

Henry checks out a puzzle-piece version of himself at the Spalding House.