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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 20, 2006

Museum tries to bridge culture gap

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

The $28 million 'Imiloa Astronomy Center's three titanium cones represent the volcanoes Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai. The property also offers a 72,000-square-foot garden of Hawaiian plants.

TIM WRIGHT | Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

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'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i will be blessed today and opens to the public Thursday at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo Science and Technology Park. The facility has more than 300 exhibits in a 12,000-square-foot gallery. General admission is $14.50 and includes the planetarium show. Admission for children ages 4 to 12 is $7.50, and group and school rates are available.

For more information, call (808) 969-9700 or see www.imiloahawaii.org.

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Visitors check out displays in the portion of the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center devoted to astronomy voyaging.

'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i

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Displays on the telescope's role in space discovery stand near exhibits on the canoe, the essential tool of discovery for ancient Hawaiians.

KIRK PU'UOHAU-PUMMILL | Gemini Observatory

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HILO, Hawai'i 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i is literally shiny and new, a museum of stargazing and Hawaiian culture, housed in a building designed to be a landmark with its three high-tech titanium cones.

The museum and planetarium opens on a 9-acre site overlooking Hilo Bay next week with a complex mission, at a time when Hawaiian culture and astronomy sometimes seem to be on opposite sides of a deep rift.

On one level, the $28 million Astronomy Center of Hawai'i was built to showcase Mauna Kea and its world-class observatories, to draw Hawai'i's children into the mind-expanding possibilities of the cosmos, and to provide a new tourism draw in rainy Hilo.

Underlying that is a more complicated mission, and perhaps it is more a hope than a mission.

'Imiloa is also meant to dramatize the common ground the two sides share in the disputes over the development of Mauna Kea, a mountain that is sacred to Hawaiians and absolutely essential to Hawai'i's astronomers.

In the weeks leading up to the museum and planetarium opening, the strains in the community were exposed and looking raw.

NASA recently announced it cut funding for the long-delayed Outrigger telescopes project, which was designed to sharpen the images from the most powerful telescopes in the world at the W.M. Keck Observatory.

The Outrigger project was supposed to help in the search for new planets, and astronomers said its loss was a loss for science. What the scientists didn't say was this: The project might have been finished and operating already if not for years of resistance by Native Hawaiians and environmentalists who fought the project in court.

Then this week Hawaiian cultural and religious practitioners were angered after someone toppled a 3-foot wood and stone religious shrine at the mountain summit, an act Hawaiians consider a desecration.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a cultural practitioner whose family has long worshiped on the mountain, said the incident marks the seventh recent case of desecration of a mountain shrine.


" 'Imiloa," which means "explorer" or "seeker of profound truth," was conceived with that tension in mind.

Its displays on the telescope, the greatest tool of modern space discovery, are deliberately laid out alongside dramatic presentations on the canoe, the essential tool of discovery for the ancient Hawaiians.

The entrance to the planetarium is next to the entrance to an indoor mock forest trail that leads to a model of the summit, with displays along the trail describing some of the history and cultural significance of Mauna Kea.


Displays on the science being done at the powerful Subaru and Gemini telescopes are offered near presentations on Hawaiian immersion education. Every display is explained in both English and Hawaiian.

"I think part of what 'Imiloa offers is a forum and a gathering opportunity to develop mutual respect, and maybe a broader shared understanding of the concerns of the Hawaiian culture and language representatives, and the astronomers," said Peter Giles, executive director of 'Imiloa.

"Our programming direction and outreach activities will hopefully provide a base for better understanding on both sides."

Giles said about 100,000 visitors are expected at 'Imiloa the first year, with about 65 percent of those projected to be tourists.

Among those invited to speak at the blessing for the center today is Paul Neves, ali'i 'aimoku, or high chief, of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, an organization founded in 1865 by Kamehameha V to bring together people loyal to the Hawaiian monarchy.

Neves' organization is among those that resisted the Outrigger project. He said he will measure the success of 'Imiloa by what happens in the community and by how it affects development on Mauna Kea, the site of the origin legend of the Hawaiian people.

"It is being built to mitigate, and to show that Hawaiians and astronomy can come together," Neves said of the center. "We've never been against astronomy. We're astronomers ourselves; we came to this place by the guidance of our stars.

"It's not that we don't want astronomy, but the technology that they use today means desecration of sacred sites, and we can never change that footprint of our ancestor. It has been changed already, terribly. We're saying: Enough, no more."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.