There is simply no better place on Big Island for science nerds than the Imiloa Astronomy Center – or for anyone else looking to learn more about the island’s geology, ancient maritime culture and massive mountaintop space telescopes – than at Imiloa Astronomy Center, located within the University of Hawaii-Hilo’s Science and Technology Park in the quiet, leafy hills above downtown.
Imiloa is a multi-million-dollar educational facility open to the public, which traces its history back two decades to the strivings of a team of educators, scientists and community leaders, most of whom were associated with the University. They saw the need for a comprehensive science museum situated in the city; one that was truly place-based. They wanted the project to honor the millennia-old practice of Polynesian celestial ocean navigation – a method used by Hawaii’s first settlers to make trips back and forth from their western ancestral homeland to the newly discovered Hawaiian island chain. It was meant to draw a connection from this ancient stargazing heritage to many of the modern scientific discoveries being made in the field of astronomy right here on Big Island, and to raise awareness and interest among the general public about studying the stars.
The vast majority of the exhibits and installations featured at Imiloa are centered around these themes, from scale models of ancient outrigger sailing canoes to theater screens playing time-lapse videos of the starry night sky atop Big Island’s tallest mountain – Mauna Kea – to animated models of plate tectonics showing how the island chain was formed in the first place. The Center’s main exhibit hall is massive – around 12,000 square feet – and is crammed full of interactive stations highlighting concepts from different natural science disciplines, with a particular emphasis on astronomy and planetary systems.
Many of these learning stations teach about “wayfinding” – the traditional Polynesian navigation technique involving a system of observation and memorization developed by voyaging Pacific Island societies to find their way across massive stretches of open ocean without the aid of navigational instruments. These explorers, who would become the first humans to settle the Hawaiian Islands, used specific markers in the surrounding ocean environment such as the positions of sun, moon, and stars, the direction of ocean swells – even bird flight patterns and cloud formations – as navigational clues.
The ancient sailors would keep track of the exact places on the flat ocean horizon where individual stars rise up into and fall down from the sky. They developed a system where rising and falling stars would correspond to cardinal directions as they rose in the east and fell in the west, allowing their canoes to maintain an astonishingly straight and accurate course by following rising star to rising star, or falling star to falling star, across great distances of featureless ocean.
An installation within Imiloa illustrates this concept perfectly, comprising of an not-quite life-size model of a double-hulled voyaging canoe, complete with steering paddle, double triangular sails of auburn-colored cloth, and bow and stern carved into swooping points. It sits on a giant compass, with the typical English directional names replaced with those used by the Hawaiians’ intrepid ancestors: “Hikina” for East, “Komohana” for West, “Akau” for North and “Hema” for South. In between the main four points are many smaller intervals, known in English as “houses”, where stars would rise and fall from on the horizon. Memorizing which stars rise and set in which houses creates a sort of three-dimensional mental map of the night sky, to be used by the steersman to “find their way” without the aid of map, sextant or magnetic compass, hence the term “wayfinding.”
Adjacent to Imiloa’s main exhibit hall is a newly constructed 120-seat full-dome planetarium, which offers conventional stargazing shows along with a constantly-changing menu of more curated programs with titles like “Whale Super Highway”, “A Tale Of Three Planets” and “One World, One Sky” – a child-oriented Sesame Street special with appearances from legends like Big Bird and Elmo. The planetarium is easily spotted from the Center’s parking lot: a blindingly reflective silver cone towering above the rest of the museum complex, seemingly covered in glinting metal shingles. It features comfy, fully reclining chairs and a state-of-the-art video projection and surround sound system, and typically offers two showings per day of each of its programs, with a usual runtime of around 45 minutes. Entry into the planetarium at Imiloa is free with purchase of a general admission ticket at the main counter.
The Meaning of Imiloa, And The Best Field Trip Ever
In Hawaiian, “Imiloa” (IHM-EE-LOW-AH) means “to seek far”, or to engage in “exploration driven by a sense of wonder and imagination”. It’s a fitting name for a museum dedicated first and foremost to teaching about the intersection of traditional Hawaiian culture and astronomy, in-part by highlighting the groundbreaking astronomical research being conducted at the summit of Mauna Kea by some of the most advanced telescopes on Earth, just a few dozen miles up Saddle Road from the University’s campus.
It’s a place where K-12 field tripping schoolchildren, freshman “U of H” astronomy students, local science junkies and visitors obsessed with Hawaii’s intriguingly one-of-a-kind natural world can all learn and explore, aided by tour guides and face to face meeting with real-life “wayfinders”. These groups and many more make up the roughly 100,000 visitors (more than ten percent of whom are K-12 students) who walk across the giant glass tile mosaic entitled “Voyage of the Navigator”, which is set into the floor just inside the Center’s front entrance. Museum-goers can usually be spotted huddled around the piece, staring spellbound for a moment at the floor, taking in the scene of roiling ocean, glimmering moon, snow-topped mountain and sailing canoe being mercilessly tossed around by the waves.
Up in the mural’s night sky is a cluster of stars known to wayfinders as “Maui’s Fishhook”, or “Manaikalani” in Hawaiian. This same constellation goes by a more familiar name, as ancient Greek stargazers many years before had looked up at the same group of stars and decided it looked like the body and tail of a scorpion, deciding to name it “Scorpio”. It’s a marvelous piece of painstakingly handmade art, well-situated in perhaps the most prominent place in the building, and getting to see it up close is enough by itself to make a visit to Imiloa well worth it.
Visitors to Big Island with school-age children in tow simply won’t find a better educational experience than a trip to the Center, which has exhibits catering to all ages and learning abilities. It is a good example of “whizz-bang” science learning, which is easily evidenced on a typical weekday afternoon when gaggles of students on field trips can be spotted running around wildly in the main exhibit area, wide-eyed at the sight of neon earthquake ripples making their way across a suspended 3D globe. The exhibits are designed to be immersive, colorful, high-tech and fun, leaning heavily on visuals and sound effects. No doubt, photos of kids pressing buttons and turning dials have made their way into more than a few scrapbooks under the title “Best Field Trip Ever”.
How To Get There
Imiloa Astronomy Center can be found adjacent to the University of Hawaii-Hilo’s campus just off of Komohana Street near the western edge of Hilo. It’s a roughly three-mile drive inland from the city’s iconic bayfront and downtown of colorful rain-swept shops to reach the campus, which springs out of a largely rural and residential neighborhood. The Center is located at 600 Imiloa Place off of Nowelo Street, nearby several of the support buildings aiding the astronomy research being conducted with massive telescopes on Mauna Kea’s summit.
Imiloa’s operating hours are 9:00am to 4:30pm Thursday through Sunday, with its adjacent Sky Garden Restaurant open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00am to 2:00pm for lunch, and 5:00pm to 8:00pm for dinner. Many of these hours have changed quite a bit lately, so it’s wise to check their website at www.imiloahawaii.org for updates, or to get in touch by phone at (808) 932-8901 with any questions. It’s also a good idea to check the roster of planetarium shows beforehand and plan a trip to the museum around one of their airings.
Imiloa also boasts an extensive native plant garden, giving visitors a glimpse of what Hawaii’s landscape looked like before the wholesale arrival of invasive species. The garden is a mix of plants and shrubs endemic to Big Island, as well as examples of the wide variety of Polynesian-introduced flora which are often dubbed “canoe plants” by biologists. It makes for a good outdoor side-excursion after wandering through the maze of theaters and exhibits in the museum’s main building.