Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Museums and Planetariums: Bridging the Gap between Hawaiian Culture and Astronomy through Informal Education-A Case Study

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Museums and Planetariums: Bridging the Gap between Hawaiian Culture and Astronomy through Informal Education-A Case Study

Article excerpt


One of the major consequences of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures was to bring to the forefront the existence of conflicting cultures (scientists and literary intellectuals) by articulating their differences and initiating a dialog between them (Snow, 1959). The cultural discord that Snow addressed involved an intellectual rift. Such academic conflicts are non-life threatening. As long as each understands the culture of the other, there is little need to mitigate their differences. But there are conflicts between groups where the issues are so threatening that mitigation is urgently needed to prevent irreparable damage to the society in which both cultures co-exist. This paper discusses such a case that exists in Hawai'i between research astronomers and the local Hawaiian community over a sacred mountain called Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea--A Sacred Mountain

Towering 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is the highest peak in the Pacific basin. Measured from its base at the ocean floor, this massive shield volcano is actually the tallest mountain on earth. According to Hawaiian tradition, Mauna Kea is the mountain altar of Wakea, the celestial father--sire of the indigenous Hawaiian race. This mountain is said to protect burials of the highest chiefs, the descendants of Wakea and Papahanaumoku, who gave birth to the islands. Mauna Kea is often eulogized as Hawai'i's piko--the umbilical cord connecting earth and sky. Hawaiian families, even today, travel to Lake Wai'au, an alpine lake 750 feet below the mountain's summit, to offer the umbilical cords of their newborns. (University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy. About Mauna Kea Observatories. 2010)

In wintertime, the summit is often covered with snow--giving its name Mauna Kea, White Mountain. Reaching above 40 percent of the earth's atmosphere, its dry conditions have attracted thirteen astronomical observatories, more than on any other mountain peak on earth.

Volcanically dormant for over 4,000 years, this mountain has become the epicenter of recent social upheaval arising from disputes between those who worship its sacred altar to their sky father and those awed by its pristine views into the heavens.

Necessity--the Mother of Intervention

The recognition of Mauna Kea as a premier site for astronomical observations stemmed from unrelated happenstances and the necessity that followed. As is often the case, the road leading to its development and the consequential collision of cultures was paved with good intentions.

Surprisingly, prior to the early 1960s, Mauna Kea was never seriously considered a potential site for a major observatory. In fact, since the 1940s, the summit of Haleakala on the neighboring island of Maui had been receiving the undivided attention of observational astronomers (Steiger, 2010). Haleakala already held claims on a major solar observatory. Haleakala's allure had even enticed world-renowned astronomer Gerard Kuiper, Director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, to Maui in 1963 to survey potential sites for a major observatory. So, with all of Maui's successful pioneering work in observational astronomy, why were sights eventually turned to Mauna Kea?

The answer rests with a combination of unrelated circumstances occurring soon after Hawai'i became a State in August 1959. At that time, one out of every twelve people employed in Hawai'i was in the sugarcane cultivation and processing industry. Statehood, however, brought with it the prospects of significantly increasing labor costs, which sharply contrasted with the cheaper labor found elsewhere in the Caribbean. Although sugar would continue to dominate the Hawaiian economy for another decade, leaders already sensed the impending demise of this once staple industry.

Just past midnight on May 23, 1960 and not quite one year into statehood, the Big Island of Hawai'i was dealt a devastating blow. …

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