ʻImiloa Astronomy Center
New visitor facility unites astronomy and Hawaiian culture under one sky
More than a decade ago University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo officials began to develop the growing research and technology industry on the Big Island. Its University Park of Science and Technology opened in 1990, attracting international tenants representing technology, agriculture, biotechnology and science, including UH’s Institute for Astronomy and other leading astronomy institutions.
UH Hilo’s new visitor attraction features architecture designed to elicit a sense of place and hands-on exhibits that combine fun with facts.
Hawaiʻi Sen. Daniel Inouye and UHH officials envisioned the addition of a world-class astronomy learning center and visitor attraction where people could learn about the remarkable research taking place atop Mauna Kea volcano, combined with the cultural elements that early Hawaiian navigators brought to the field. Inouye helped the university secure NASA funding for the project.
In February 2006, their vision was brought to life. The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi opened to positive reviews from residents and tourists of all ages.
Where astronomy and culture merge
ʻImiloa means "exploring new knowledge." The ʻImiloa center takes visitors on an exploration of Mauna Kea and tells the story of its world-renowned astronomy and rich Hawaiian traditions.
The $28 million, 40-square-foot facility overlooking picturesque Hilo Bay is unique inside and out. The center’s three titanium-clad cones, with its bold radiance, is already a landmark with the local community. Designed by Honolulu architecture firm Durrant Media Five, the building represents three volcanoes on the Big Island—Hualālai, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
"The center celebrates a connection between Earth and the universe beyond," says Melvyn Choy, Durrant chairperson and managing principal.
The landscaping surrounding the attraction features indigenous and "canoe" plants (those brought by early Polynesian navigators). It mirrors the changing flora found as one ascends from ocean front to volcano summit.
Hawaiʻi Island Landscaping Association recognized local landscape architect Randall Monaghan and the center with two awards for excellence for the design and implementation. Inside, visitors, students and families are invited to immerse themselves in various learning exhibits that link Hawaiian cultural traditions and the science of astronomy.
"This place brings an important part of Hawaiian history to life," says Executive Director Peter Giles. A seasoned museum leader and fundraiser, Giles recently retired after 18 years of conceptualizing and realizing The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. He arrived in Hawaiʻi determined that ʻImiloa gain recognition on par with the world-class reputation of Mauna Kea’s astronomical research.
"Mauna Kea is the local tie for many when it comes to astronomy, so it is fitting that ʻImiloa blend a sense of place into it," says Giles.
Cosmic evolution is cool
For those seeking an educational and interactive experience, ʻImiloa does not disappoint. The center is filled with more than 100 learning exhibits’from games and video clips to a 3D immersion theater that transports its passengers to outer space.
"Our exhibits are visually appealing, fun and hands-on, fascinating our visitors, especially the kids," says Gloria Chun Hoo, ʻImiloa marketing manager. A veteran in both museums and marketing, Hoo was born and raised in Honolulu. She worked with Giles at The Tech for 10 years and moved back to Hawaiʻi in 2005 to join him in creating another exceptional attraction.
Hoo’s enthusiasm is palpable. "Entering the main exhibit gallery, one can’t help but feel an initial sense of awe in moving onward with their explorations," she says.
In the entry exhibit, the Piko, visitors ascend through a simulated koa forest that winds its way to the top of Mauna Kea. Another crowd-pleaser is the 4D2U experimental theatre, developed with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, which operates the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea. Viewers take a 3D journey through space and back in time to the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.
In the Kumulipo theatre, compelling chant and stimulating lights and sounds tell the Hawaiian story of creation in a theatrical way.
The 120-seat full-dome, state-of-the-art planetarium boasts a Digistar 3 system, one of the most technologically advanced video production systems available. Its reclining seats, each equipped with keypads on the armrest, allow audience members to customize their viewing experience. The opening show was Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky, a 22-minute film focusing on the sacred mountain, its connection to Hawaiian culture and our ongoing exploration of the origins of the universe.
The planetarium’s laser projector, due for installation in summer 2006, will provide the highest resolution available’up to 16 million pixels of video resolution.
More to come
Not yet open at press time, the center’s 2,000-square-foot café will build on the center’s theme through a menu developed in conjunction with food-service provider Sodexho.
The center also plans to involve UH Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College students as volunteers, interns and part-time workers. About 80 volunteers from the local community have signed on to assist the 15 full–time employees.
Facing an annual operating budget of $3 million, Giles intends to place ʻImiloa on a solid financial basis. His sustainability plan calls for half the revenue from admission, store sales, rental fees and membership; 25 percent from grants and 25 percent from private donations. State contributions are expected through an appropriation to UH Hilo.
Another priority for Giles is "to build the image and reality of ʻImiloa as the must see destination in the Pacific." To achieve that, Hoo works closely with the Big Island Visitors Bureau to promote the center to the travel and tourism industry.
"The Big Island Visitors Bureau sees ʻImiloa as having a huge potential to attract visitors and encourage tourists to stay a night in Hilo," she says. "We have already been contacted by many tour operators who are interested in adding us to their schedules."
UHH officials are also committed to making the center a major attraction for the island and the state. "The relationship between ʻImiloa and UH is symbiotic, and the partnership is vital to both," says Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng. "The university provides the expertise of its faculty and a great resource for volunteers among faculty, staff and students, while ʻImiloa’s popularity as a visitor destination will bring more visibility to UH Hilo on a national and international level. The mutuality will result in increased prestige for both institutions."
Giles adds, "Astronomy remains one of the exciting frontiers that can only be crossed with technological innovation. It will be an important part in making Hawaiʻi a home for technology innovation."
- Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday
- Extended Hours: available to scheduled groups
- Admission: $14.50 general, $7.50 ages 4–12, free under 4; kamaʻāina rates available
- Directions: from Route 11 (Kanoelehua Hwy), turn onto Pūʻainakō Street and head mauka (uphill) 1.5 miles; turn right onto Komohana Street; turn right onto Nowelo Street; take the second left onto ʻImiloa Place; follow signs for parking.
- Contact: 808 969-9700
- Online: www.imiloahawaii.org
ʻImiloa Executive Director Peter Giles
Meet Executive Director Peter Giles
- Roots: Salt Lake City, raised in San Francisco
- Career: President and CEO, The Tech Museum of Innovation; president, Silicon Valley Leadership Group; board member, International Association of Science and Technology Centers
- Academic training: History and public administration
- Family: Wife Leanne, 7 children, 10 grandchildren
- Hobbies: Languages, fitness, music
- On life in Hawaiʻi: "It’s a new adventure, with new and intriguing personalities."
Mauna Kea astronomy featured in new books
Look for two books by people with University of Hawaiʻi ties to learn more about Mauna Kea and the astronomical activities that take place on the mountain.
In A Gentle Rain of Starlight: The Story of Astronomy on Mauna Kea (Island Heritage Publishing), UH Hilo Professor of Astronomy Michael J. West compiles a sumptuous record of the history of astronomy on the mountain, the people involved and the discoveries made. The title—a reference to photons, droplets of starlight that fall onto telescope mirrors—hints at the often poetic text. An abundance of photos—historic, documentary and artistic—gives even the armchair traveler a taste of the mountain’s beauties and working conditions.
Mauna Kea: A Guide to Hawaiʻi’s Sacred Mountain (Watermark Publishing) is a comprehensive resource for anyone who plans to visit in person. UH Mānoa alumni Leslie Lang (MA in anthropology) and David Byrne (BS in geology and geophysics, MBA) include sections on cultural significance, natural history, recreation and side trips along with practical considerations and visitor etiquette.
Both books acknowledge conflicting views that arise in the debate over use of a place that is at once the world’s best site for astronomy, a unique ecosystem and perhaps the most sacred of locations to Native Hawaiians. And both tomes offer an abundance of fun facts (e.g., a light bulb gives off more light in an hour than Mauna Kea telescopes collect in four years) and information on each of the observatories.