February 21, 2006

Center Aims to Unite Scientists, Hawaiians

HONOLULU (AP) - Blending scientific and Hawaiian exhibits, an astronomy center atop Mauna Kea hopes to ease conflicts over the development of a volcano considered sacred by Hawaiians.

When the $28 million Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii opens Thursday, officials expect its more than 300 exhibits in a 12,000-square-foot gallery to spark visitors' interest in science and provide a new tourism draw in rainy Hilo.

But, as its architecture suggests, the center also strives to increase understanding between astronomers and Hawaiians.

Displays of Mauna Kea's world-class observatories are deliberately arranged alongside dramatic presentations of the canoe. An entrance to the planetarium is next to an indoor mock forest that describes the mountain's cultural history. Information is given in English and Hawaiian.

The blessing of the center Monday comes as Hawaiians were angered last week after someone toppled a 3-foot wood and stone religious shrine at the mountain summit.

The proposed NASA budget also recently cut funding for the Outrigger telescopes project, which has been delayed by years of resistance from Hawaiians and environmentalists who fought the development in court.

"Part of what Imiloa offers is a forum and a gathering opportunity to develop mutual respect, and maybe a broader shared understanding of the concerns of the Hawaiian culture and language representatives, and the astronomers," said Peter Giles, executive director of Imiloa, which in Hawaiian means "to explore" and "seek knowledge."

Giles said about 100,000 visitors are expected at Imiloa the first year, with about 65 percent of those projected to be tourists.

In a recent tour of the center, Alison Peck, an astronomer of the Submillimeter Array, said she has already learned more about the volcano's significance to Hawaiians.

"I didn't actually know much about Hawaiian legends of creation," said Peck, who has lived in Hilo for four years.

Sabrina Machado, a volunteer guide at the center, said the building, which has three titanium-clad cones representing three Big Island mountains, gave her a place to enjoy two passions.

"The two things I love are astronomy and the Hawaiian language," she said. "I never thought I could be somewhere where I could have both at the same time. I thought I had to choose one or the other."