Hot Stuff

Center explores the core of creation

By: Dawna L. Robertson

As Mike Shanahan and I strolled across the Great Lawn to the Bishop Museum’s new Science Adventure Center on a warm Hawaii afternoon, I had to wonder. What’s so hot about this place? Why is everyone so fired up?

While stopping to admire the sleekly modern 16,500-square-foot structure such an architectural contrast to cultural counterpart Bishop Museum Shanahan enlightened me.

“There aren’t many places where learning about science can be fun,” the education director said with a serious tone. Then he smiled. “This new facility accomplishes that.”

Long revered for its collection of over 23 million cultural objects and natural history specimens, the 117-year-old Bishop Museum stands unrivaled in tracing Hawaii’s rich cultural past. The $17 million Science Adventure Center extends the museum’s mission by showcasing the natural phenomena that continue to shape the islands.

“This is a nice facility for tourists in general, especially those with younger children,” Shanahan said. “It shows them where Hawaii came from and what’s unique to the islands.”

Erupting with 30 custom-designed exhibits both interactive and immersive, the center tempts even the most laidback guests to become active adventurers.

For touring ease, the center is divided into six distinctive zones: Arrival and Orientation, Hawaiian Origins, Volcanic Hot Spot, Kilauea Volcano, Living Islands and Ocean Hot Spots.

Hands-on displays lead explorers through three stories of discovery. Linking it all is the 26-foot, steam-belching centerpiece of Puu Oo Volcano, a man-made marvel loosely modeled after the active vent of Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island.

I cruised through the entry gallery, gawking at “good guys and bad guys,” as Shanahan put it.

“Hawaii’s native species are the good guys and invasives are the bad guys,” he explained.

A videoscope made the distinctions crystal clear, bringing me eye-to-eye with endemic friends, like the koa bug, and alien foes, such as centipedes and cockroaches.

I took a lead from 6-year-old Zachary, who was visiting the center with his grandmother. As the Portland native worked his way across the Hawaiian Archipelago via an interactive globe, his grandmother remarked that he loved any display he could touch. No doubt Zachary was in his ultimate happy-land.

Other visitors were gravitating to the adjacent Hawaiian Origins Tunnel. Brimming with artwork all aglow, the 160-foot lava tube replica was like walking through a black-light poster.
It was fantasy-like with fluorescent flora, animals and ancient cultural symbols, a little bit of everything from the cosmos to the depths of the ocean. The audios were just as captivating.
“It’s inspired by Kumulipo, a chanter who speaks of origins and life,” said Shanahan.

The powerful chants were interspersed with translations and the natural sounds of birds, water and wind.

Consumed with the underwater world, I decided to dive into the action at the Deep Ocean Tank. I tried my hand at controlling one of two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) floating near a model of the submerged Loihi volcano located off the Big Island’s coast.

Equipped with camera and light, my submersible seemed to have a mind of its own. But the youngster next to me managed to maneuver his ROV through volcanic vents with the greatest of ease.

At the Hot Spot Theater, we were welcomed with a blast of radiant heat.

“Almost feels real,” someone remarked.

It wasn’t even close, by a couple thousand degrees.

The image was surreal. A center staff member garbed in asbestos tossed chunks of lava rock into a 2,500-degree furnace, melting it into magma.

The half-hour process included a multimedia presentation exploring the core of island creation. Sitting beneath a ceiling of rippling, backlit translucent panels, I understood how kids could actually sense being inside an active volcano. The audience oohed and aahed as the molten lava finally flowed.

As we worked our way up to the summit of the center’s signature hot spot, Puu Oo began to spew as if on cue.

“Water, colored lights and steam do the trick,” Shanahan reported. “But try convincing kids of that.”

Erupting periodically throughout the day, this multilevel monster allows bird’s-eye and interior views into what’s considered Hawaii’s heart of creation. Volcano visitors were scattered across a mezzanine bridge for an aerial glimpse into an apparent pool of molten lava.

A larger-than-life tree house geared with “good guys and bad guys” costumes is an even bigger draw for the youngest visitors. Strangely, several adults were also decked out without a child in sight.

The rest of the afternoon was smooth sailing until the fire alarm sounded. It seemed that a wee one was so fired up, he took the interactive approach a bit too far.


Bishop Museum’s Science Adventure Center is the only facility in the U.S. featuring state-of-the-art highly interactive exhibits that focus on an environmental theme. Nearly 30 custom-made exhibits include Puu Oo Volcano, Hot Spot Theater, Deep Ocean Tank, Hawaiian Origins Tunnel, Living lslands Gallery and Makani and Wai Walls.

Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817

Hours: 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily, except Christmas
Admission: $14.95 for adults, $11.95 for kids ages 4-12 and free for children under 4. Admission covers both facilities.