Jumat, 22 Januari 2010

Astronomy centre mixes stars with culture

For visitors to Hawaii looking for something they cannot see from the beach or the golf course, an unconventional museum and planetarium near the base of massive Mauna Kea volcano offers the story of the star-filled skies that guided discoverers to the Hawaiian Islands.

But the Imiloa Astronomy Centre, which is designed to resemble the island's three tallest volcanoes, is about more than outer space.

Imiloa also doubles as a cultural centre, with Hawaiian-language translations displayed on every exhibit and a focus on islanders' history of exploration.

Tours start with an indoor walk through a replica forest of koa trees until you reach a room dedicated to Mauna Kea, the 4205-metre Big Island mountain. The room is filled with the sparkling stars that Polynesian voyagers used to navigate their way across the Pacific until they arrived in Hawaii.

Native Hawaiian chants surround visitors as they learn about the sacred nature of the now-dormant volcano, which is the home of the snow goddess Poliahu.

Mauna Kea is also home to 13 giant telescopes that provide scientists with one of the clearest views into space of any place on earth. While there is a visitor's centre on the mountain, the telescopes are off-limits to tourists.

But Imiloa makes the type of astronomy research that goes on atop Mauna Kea accessible to the general public.

Imiloa's emphasis on Hawaiian culture and history also provides a context for understanding the controversy over the mountaintop obervatories. Mauna Kea has long been a source of contention between international scientists and Hawaiians who oppose the telescopes on the summit, believing that the mountain is a holy place that should have been left untouched.

"It's not a secret that there's tension over Mauna Kea," said Kaiu Kimura, an experiences coordinator at Imiloa. "Historically, people have always had to say whether they're a cultural practitioner or a believer in science. We're trying to say that we're both."

In the museum's planetarium, the astronomy centre's 22-minute film, Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky, traces the journey of explorers aboard double-hulled canoes who used the stars to plot their course across the sea.

The movie tells of the births of stars and shows footage of underwater volcanoes, and it is followed by a brief star show on the planetarium's dome.

The exhibit hall brings the enormity of the skies to a comprehensible level.

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