Founded by owner and collector Wayne Subica, the Hawaii Plantation Museum opened in 2013 in Papaikou, Hawaii. The museum features a vast collection of artifacts and displays that showcase the work of plantations. Some local goods and signs that were previously found in stores in Hilo and all over the island along with being featured in plantation workers’ households are also featured. All these items were from the plantation era of the island’s history.
In addition to artifacts from plantations themselves, Hawaii Plantation Museum also features films and photos of plantation life as well as plantation newspapers, city directories, ship passenger lists, high school yearbooks, and more that record the lives of the people who lived and worked on the plantations. Sugar plantations, of course, are today nonexistent. The final sugar plantation harvest, from Kohala Sugar, on the Hawaiian Islands is now more than 25 years in the past. The second Puna Sugar Company closed in 1982. Kau Sugar closed up shop in 1996 on the Big Island but remained active on Maui for another 20 years. In 2016, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar closed the last exporting commercial sugar operation on the island, thus marking the true end of the sugar plantation era.
The sugar plantation industry initially exploded in the islands after 1876 thanks to the Reciprocity Treaty between the then Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States of America. Sugar farming and plantation life quickly changed the culture of the island, building up the population and changing the environment. Contract workers were subsequently brought in from all over the world, from locations like the Madeira Islands, Portugal’s Azores, China, and Japan. These workers along with the native people begin building a new community and culture.
The Hawaii Plantation Museum showcases how the sugar industry changed the culture in Hawaii and how it has made the islands what it is today. The mission of the museum is to collect, preserve and then exhibit artifacts from sugar plantations and other small business memorabilia for the educational purpose of presenting these artifacts and the facts they represent to future generations, visitors, and residents alike.
The gallery portion of the museum features a trove of tools and equipment that were frequently used on plantations. The museum shop offers books and other museum logo items like t-shirts. The available books cover interesting topics on various issues that impacted the Hawaii islands throughout its industrial history and beyond. Guests can visit the museum on their own or tours and groups can be arranged for a more educational experience.
The video memories project made possible by the museum features recorded short interviews with people who either worked in the plantations themselves grew up in plantation communities or served in retail or service centers during the plantation era. Their interviews cover a wide range of topics from their family lives to their work lives and how the general way of making a living changed over time. Several of these individuals recall the attack on Pearl Harbor and others remember when the tsunami struck the Big Island. Both tragedies had a significant impact on the lives of residents at the time.
While the positive elements of plantation living are presented throughout the Hawaii Plantation Museum, there are real-life examples of the tragedies that took place as well, such as workplace accidents and other problems that went hand-in-hand with making a living on a plantation. Therefore, the museum does a good job of presenting a realistic view of the way life was in decades past, not leaving out the hard parts or the rough stories. After all, they too made Hawaii what it is today and are worth retelling.
Hawaii Plantation Museum is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that is supported by museum admission sales, sales of books, and generous donations by museum visitors and supporters.
-Museum memberships are offered for purchase if you want to become a member of the Hawaii Plantation Museum.
-Items from the museum shop can be purchased online and shipped all over the United States.