The Founding of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center – An Excerpt from International Thinking on Children in Museums

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The following is an excerpt from “Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center … The gathering place – where East meets West” by Loretta Yajima. It is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge/CRC Press in International Thinking on Children in Museums: A Sociocultural View of Practice by Sharon E. Shaffer on October 12, 2020, available online.

Incorporated in 1985, the Hawaii Children’s Museum was the first and only museum in Hawaii designed especially for children. Its mission: to bring information and experiences about the world beyond our Island shores to the children of Hawaii and to instill in our keiki a pride in themselves and their ethnic and cultural heritage. By offering audiences of all ages a wide variety of experiences in a world-class participatory learning environment, it was our hope that this would be a place that inspires and educates both the young and the “young at heart.”

In 1988, the organization, led primarily by a small group of volunteers, raised the funds to construct an initial temporary facility in the Dole Cannery Square, space donated by Castle & Cooke Properties. The museum celebrated its grand opening at its 5,000-square-foot site on January 24, 1990. It immediately proved to be a popular gathering place for Hawaii’s families. Where else in Hawaii could children learn about science, the human body, culture, and communications while having fun? Where else in Hawaii could parents participate in self-discovery activities with their children in a creative yet nurturing environment?

The demand for services by school and community groups was so great that the facility was obviously not suitable for the long-term development and growth of the museum. Relocation to a larger, permanent site was deemed a priority. After considering many options, then Governor John D. Waihee offered a site in the State’s newly developing Kaka’ako Waterfront Park with the idea that the museum would serve as the anchor tenant for the area. The plan was that the park would become a gathering place for Hawaii’s families as well as for tourists who came to visit Oahu.

So, out of the “ashes” of an old city incinerator was born a dream – literally. To say that the story of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center is a unique one would be an understatement. In 1998, the newly developed Children’s Discovery Center rose from the renovated and expanded shell of an old incinerator next to a city landfill near downtown Honolulu. With the support of government officials, major corporations, and the community at large, millions of dollars were raised for the construction of a permanent facility. The 38,000-square-foot incinerator was renovated and transformed into a world-class children’s museum – a remarkable feat considering Hawaii’s economy was in a prolonged slump at the time and funding was scarce.

The former Kaka’ako landfill was transformed into a gem of a waterfront park, and the former city incinerator became a beehive of activity for children from across the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, the first and only museum of its kind in Hawaii, was known largely through word of mouth and its growing reputation as a world-class children’s museum. Local families, school groups, and tourists flocked to the museum, which quickly grew to serve over 125,000 visitors a year. While many children’s museums typically start out in donated space, Hawaii’s children’s museum has the unique distinction of being the only one in the world that started out in a pineapple cannery and ended up in a city incinerator.

The first and only children’s museum in Hawaii dedicated to serving the children and families of the state, the Center’s mission remains to provide an interactive learning environment that will motivate and inspire children to new heights of learning and discovery. Through galleries of hands-on, interactive exhibits and educational programs, the Center helps children develop positive self-concept in a nurturing environment where children can learn through play. Here they can develop an understanding of themselves and others in Hawaii’s multicultural community and have a “window to the world” beyond the beauty of the island shores.

The Center serves children of all ages, abilities, and origins. It hosts a culturally and economically diverse audience throughout the island state, as well as a broader audience throughout the country and world. An educational resource for young children, the Center enhances and extends learning opportunities that children have at home or in the classroom.

While there are many outstanding children’s museums across the nation, the Discovery Center in Hawaii is unique in its focus on Hawaii’s history and rich cultural diversity. Its hands-on, child-oriented, carefully designed exhibits say to the communities’ keiki o ka aina (children of the land), this is a place about them and the people of Hawaii, about what they share in common, about who they are and where they came from.

The Center’s cultural galleries are, first and foremost, about the experience of discovery, about Hawaii’s immigrant population, and about the one common denominator that is shared by all, whether one lives in the middle of the Pacific or along the stormy shores of New England: It is about the immigrant’s need and search for community and hope. Theirs were voyages of discovery and wonder, similar in many ways to the daily experiences of the thousands of young children from throughout Hawaii and from all over the world, who visit the Discovery Center every day.

What makes the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center unique is its focus on the cultural mosaic that is Hawaii: the history of its people, the challenges they faced as newcomers to a strange land, and the successes they achieved despite overwhelming odds; the celebration of their music, dance, food, ceremony, and commitment to each other; and the unique overarching community they created in spite of language, cultural, and prejudicial barriers. The Center and Hawaii’s children are indeed Hawaii’s “rainbow connection to the world.”

The Children’s Discovery Center has matured and fulfills its mission of being Hawaii’s “rainbow connection” to the world, each and every day. As the inspiration and model for the early childhood education movement that is taking place in China today, Hawaii’s very own children’s museum continues to be respected and admired by children’s museum colleagues both nationally and internationally. In 2017 the Center hosted the Asia Pacific Children’s Museum Conference, an international gathering of children’s museum professionals, in Honolulu. Most importantly, early education in the Islands has no stronger advocate and ally than the Children’s Discovery Center, and we are proud of the learning opportunities it provides to our young children and their families.

Photos courtesy of Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.

Loretta Yajima is Chair of the Board of Directors of Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.

Sharon E. Shaffer is a museum consultant specializing in providing programming to younger children and works with museum professionals around the world. She is a former Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, USA, and is the only educator ever to receive the Smithsonian Institution Secretary’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. She has a PhD in Social Foundations of Education and is an adjunct faculty member with the  University of Virginia.