The display of objects of interest had an earlier history in post-contact Hawai‘i. In 1833, Seaman’s chaplain, Rev. John Diell, began displaying artifacts in the basement of the Seaman’s Bethel (church) in Honolulu, attracting the occasional interested visitor.
Diell enlarged his collection in 1837, seeking to preserve the objects of what he saw as a dying race. He named his new “museum” The Sandwich Islands Institute. It opened with among other odd curiosities, a large black bear and snow shoes.
(These were owned by the late David Douglas, who discovered the Douglas fir tree. He had left them at the home of the Reverend Diell shortly before being killed in a cattle trap near Hilo on July 12, 1834.)
After a short time, the museum at the Bethel closed; relics of its brief existence may have found their way into Bishop Museum and the Hawaiʻi Public Library.
In later decades, the Hawaiian Kingdom government came to recognize the value that a museum might offer as a site of cultural preservation and national voice.
On July 29, 1872, King Lot Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V) signed into law an “Act to establish a National Museum.”
The Hawaiian National Museum opened in 1875, during the reign of King David Kalākaua, as a small collection with a meager budget. It was housed in an upper room of Ali‘iolani Hale, the government building.
As Kalākaua began to focus his attention on nationalistic projects he would increase the museum’s budget ten-fold and name Emma Nakuina, the museum’s first native curator, as head of the institution.
However, in 1887, the newly imposed “Bayonet Constitution” greatly curtailed the king’s power and slashed funding for the National Museum. Discussions soon began concerning a possible transfer of the government collection to Charles Bishop’s proposed museum.
Charles Reed Bishop founded the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in 1889 in honor of his deceased wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884.)
Pauahi, as a member of the royal family and mo‘opuna kuakahi (great granddaughter) of Kamehameha I, had inherited many treasured objects, including the collection of her cousin, Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlanii (1826-1883). The preservation and display of these objects had been a desire of both of these chiefly women.
When a third high ranking chiefess, the former queen, Emma Rooke (1836-1885), passed only a year after Pauahi her significant artifacts joined the others, forming the foundational collection of the proposed new museum.
Construction of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum began in 1889 in Kalihi-Pālama on the grounds of the campus of the Kamehameha School for Boys. The museum opened to the public in 1892, and later added Polynesian Hall in 1894, and the “Victorian masterpiece” named Hawaiian Hall in 1903.
In January of 1891, word arrived by ship of the death of King Kalākaua. Museum Director William T. Brigham, reportedly anxious over what might become of the national collection, collected and transferred many of the artifacts to the newly founded museum now under his direction.
On June 22 of that same year the museum opened to the public with a mission to “preserve and display the cultural and historic relics of the Kamehameha family that Princess Pauahi had acquired.” The nation’s new sovereign, Queen Lili‘uokalani, was the first guest.
After a 3-year facelift, the museum’s 3-floor, Hawaiian Hall was reopened. The first floor is the realm of Kai Ākea (which represents the Hawaiian gods, legends, beliefs and the world of pre-contact Hawai‘i.) The second floor, Wao Kanaka, represents the realm where people live and work; focusing on the importance of the land and nature in daily life. The third floor, Wao Lani, is the realm inhabited by the gods; here, visitors learn about the aliʻi and key moments in Hawaiian history.
Then, the Pacific Hall, a gallery of two floors representing the peoples of Pacific cultures across Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, was renovated, restored and reopened. (The inspiration and much of the information here is from Bishop Museum.)