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Museums in Hilo, Big Island

The three museums in Hilo are all worth a visit for furthering your understanding of not only the area and its history, but the people who lived that history. Notably, these museums are housed in wonderfully historic buildings themselves.

Pacific Tsunami Museum

Hilo suffered a devastating tsunami in 1946 and another in 1960. Both times, most of the waterfront area of the city was destroyed, but the 1930 Bishop National Bank building survived, owing to its structural integrity. Appropriately, the Pacific Tsunami Museum (130 Kamehameha Ave., 808/935-0926, Mon.-Sat. 9am-4:15pm, $8 adults, $7 seniors, and $4 students) is now housed in this fine art deco structure and dedicated to those who lost their lives in the devastating waves that raked the city.

The museum has numerous permanent displays, an audiovisual room, computer linkups to scientific sites, and periodic temporary exhibitions. The most moving displays of this museum are the photographs of the last two terrible tsunamis that struck the city and the stories told by the survivors of those events. Stop in for a look. It’s worth the time.

View of the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo. Photo © vacclav/123rf.

Lyman Museum and Mission House

A few short blocks above downtown Hilo, the Lyman Museum and Mission House (276 Haili St., 808/935-5021, Mon.-Sat. 10am-4:30pm, $10 adults, $8 seniors, $3 children, $21 family, $5 students) showcases the oldest wood building on the Big Island, originally built in 1839 for David and Sarah Lyman, some of the first Christian missionaries on the island.

The museum is a Smithsonian affiliate with a bit of everything, from fine art to mineral and gem collections to exhibits on habitats of Hawaii. The first-floor Earth Heritage Gallery holds a mineral and rock collection that’s rated one of the best in the entire country, and by far the best in Polynesia. The museum also holds a substantial collection of archival documents and images relating to Hawaii’s history.

Next door is the Lyman Mission House, which opened as a museum in 1931. The furniture is authentic “Sandwich Isles” circa 1850. Some of the most interesting exhibits are of small personal items like a music box that still plays and a collection of New England autumn leaves that Mrs. Lyman had sent over to show her children what that season was like. Upstairs are bedrooms that were occupied by the Lyman children. Mrs. Lyman kept a diary and faithfully recorded eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Scientists still refer to it for some of the earliest recorded data on these natural disturbances. The master bedroom has a large bed with pineapples carved into the bedposts, crafted by a ship’s carpenter who lived with the family for about eight months. The bedroom mirror is an original, in which many Hawaiians received their first surprised look at themselves. Guided tours of the Lyman Mission House are included with museum admission and are given twice a day (11am and 2pm) by experienced and knowledgeable docents who relate many intriguing stories about the house and its occupants.

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