Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Featuring more than 1,000 photographs and an entertaining range of digital interactive displays, the recently opened Honolulu exhibition “Change: 125 Years Through the Eyes of Bishop Museum” offers an in-depth examination of the dramatic transformation across the Hawaiian Islands since the Bishop Museum opened in 1889.

The exhibition, which runs through March 16, is loaded with wonderful content, covering everything from the Islands’ complicated political past to more everyday details such as working life, fashion, tourism and food. It drew an impressive crowd of both Hawaii residents and visitors during my look at the show last week.  

According to DeSoto Brown, the Bishop Museum historian and head researcher for the exhibit, visitors from the U.S. mainland may be somewhat surprised by the range of similarities between Hawaii history and that of their own hometown, but they’re also likely to see a great many differences.

“One of the things that’s going to be very different is that we’ve got a much different ethnic mix, and our different ethnicities permeate all of our society and all our lives,” Brown said. “That’s not going to look like a lot of the rest of the United States.”

With many immigrants, including Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Europeans, relocating to the Hawaiian Islands to work in the archipelago’s sugar and pineapple plantations throughout much of the 20th century, Hawaii’s population looks considerably different today and often provides a stark contrast to many other U.S. states. The exhibit offers visitors an introduction to Hawaii’s diverse ethnic makeup and a chance to trace its evolution over the years.

The show also provides stunning visual evidence of the remarkable growth on Oahu, the state’s most populous and urban island, while the archipelago’s population increased from just 90,000 people in 1889 to more than 1.4 million today.

One of “Change’s” most impressive digital interactive exhibits is, in fact, a video screen enabling viewers to contrast historical photos of places in Honolulu with images taken more recently, illustrating the striking difference over time. One example is an old view of Waikiki beach taken from out on the ocean, featuring only the Moana Surfrider Hotel, the pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and a lot of palm trees. That’s a very different image from the beach you’d see lined with high-rise hotel after high-rise hotel today.

“Just going back and forth between the two pictures of the same location tells you more than any verbal description ever could,” Brown said. “We know the Hawaiian Islands, just like the rest of the world, has changed tremendously in the last 125 years, but these photographs really get that across to you graphically.”

Another of the show’s many intriguing components is a look back at the food of Hawaii, including the Asian influences on popular cuisine and treats today, such as spam musubi or shave ice. But there’s also a fun interactive display enabling visitors to see how food prices have changed over the years and a collection of vintage restaurant menus from decades ago.

“Frogs’ legs, for example, were on a lot of menus for a long time, and they were frogs that were raised here locally,” Brown explained. “That’s something you wouldn’t even think of now. You just don’t see them, [and] additionally, the prices are striking, because you look and gasp and think, ‘It wasn’t even a dollar to get a whole meal?’”

In 1917, you could buy 100 pounds of pineapple for $1.50 in Hawaii, according to the exhibition and Brown’s research. Today, 1 pound costs $1.59.  

Visit www.bishopmuseum.org.

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