Culture on Hawaii

Originally we were planning to mention these two museums inside the next post. But there is no way we can just briefly mention either of them, so only option was to slip them into their own post. Still to keep the post reasonable and not too heavy to read, I won’t go too much into detail. Anyone interested has the world wide web to explore more, if needed.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

There are two museums on O’ahu, that both aim to tell about Hawaiian and Polynesian history and culture. Of those two we chose to visit Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, which was closer to where we stayed. Matte had also heard good things about it, so it was an easy choice for a rainy day activity.

We spent a few hours researching the Hawaiian Hall. It is cleverly arranged into three floors with each of them telling about different aspects of Hawaiian culture. First floor is about the belief system, second floor is about practices, third floor political system. So when you walk through the exhibition, at the end your understanding of the culture is based on these three different layers, that support each other.


There is no understanding the culture without the knowledge of the belief system. The practices and how the society is build makes more sense once you know what the people valued and what the understanding of the world was based on. The same thing goes without saying for the political system.

We were both quite fascinated by everything we saw.

The Treasured Mahiole (feathered helmet) worn by the reigning chief of Hawai‘i Island, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, in 1779 when greeting an English captain named James Cook.

To be honest neither of us had prior knowledge of Hawaii and how it came to be. When we entered the first floor and had our first glimpse, Matte said “I am going to read everything”. That did not quite happen, let’s be honest, but we did give each floor our full attention. We read about the gods and the beliefs, we read about the importance of the sea, we read about the society where women were completely equal members early on, we read about the kingdom of Hawaii, and how it all came to an end by an US-led coup.

The reason why the Hawaiian flag has an Union flag in it is because they used to have very tight connections and trade agreements with England. A remnant of the British Empire’s influence on Hawaiian history.

The Hawaiian Hall is not the only part of the Bishop Museum. The museum contains other rooms and exhibitions, but in addition there are other buildings to explore. We spent so much time in the Hall, that our visits to the other parts were just a quick glance. There were exhibitions of Polynesian culture, Hawaiian flora and fauna and the importance of birds, sharks and also a science center that was more for kids than adults. We heard about the museum being so big, that you would almost need two days to fully explore it, and now we understand why.

The biggest threat to hawaiian birdlife are mosquitoes

Pearl Harbor

We were not sure whether or not to visit Pearl Harbor. It was an hour drive from where we were staying and tickets to the Arizona Memorial – maybe the main point of interest – were all sold out. We had also just visited Bishop Museum, where it had really struck to us that Hawaiian (Polynesian) history and American history are two separate things. For a moment we thought that we can save American history for the mainland.

One morning we set out to visit the museum. Then the sky started pouring down on us and we changed our minds. While having breakfast and trying to find something else to do with our wonderful 2G connection (turns out our unlocked Motorola phones do not support American 4G network – especially Matte has probably got a few new grey hairs due to this), the sky cleared up again.

It was time to give Pearl Harbor a chance. And where we happy we visited it? Absolutely.

Even though there are many companies offering bus rides to Pearl Harbor starting from 39 dollars, we opted to the city buses for 5 dollars each. That and 3 dollars to store our bags (compulsory, due to security measures) ended up being the only thing we spent on visiting the popular destination, since many parts of the base were and still are free-of-charge.

When we arrived, we found out that there is a stand-by line for the Arizona Memorial, since every day there are a lot of people who do not show up for their tour. So after 15 minutes standing in the line we were already watching a short film explaining what happened at Pearl Harbor.

After the film, a boat took us to the memorial, which has been built over the submerged USS Arizona, it took the heaviest casualties on December 7, 1941. 1.177 people died on board of the ship.


USS Arizona Memorial by Alfred Preis


Albeit the constant stream of people to the memorial the atmosphere at the memorial was quite peaceful. That might be partly due to the film reminding to be respectful at the site. After all, it is a mass grave.

The ship has been leaking oil for decades now and it will leak for decades to come. There has been obvious concerns of the environmental damage to the area, but also reluctance to act because it is a war grave. The survivors of the USS Arizona describe the oil slick coming out of the wreckage as “black tears”, some say that the oil will stop surfacing once the last Pearl Harbor survivor dies.

The black tears near the memorial

At the back of the memorial is a white marble wall with all the names of the dead engraved. There are also the names of the survivors, who have been buried there later on. About 30 survivors have chosen to be buried to the site. They had a full military funeral and the ashes were put into gun turrets by divers.



The visit to the Arizona Memorial is quick and efficiently timed, but it does give more people a chance to visit the beautiful memorial.

After returning we visited two free-of-charge museums onsite, which were very interesting but quite small. A large portion of the population on Oahu were Japanese descent during the time. The military leaders at Pearl Harbor thought the biggest threat was sabotage. That lead to planes being stored side by side without ammunition, which made them an easy target.

There would have been other museums to visit for a fee, but due to us arriving quite late we did not have time to even consider visiting them. It did not really matter too much, since we already felt that we got a good dosage of the rather sad history of Pearl Harbor.

After all the contemplating whether or not to visit, we were happy that we did. Our backpacker budget was even more pleased with the chosen activity.



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