Thursday | December 14, 2017
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New museum exhibit depicts ‘The Story of Hilo’

Eighteen stories of tsunami victims and survivors are the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Pacific Tsunami Museum highlighting Hilo’s relationship with the natural disasters.

The new exhibit, called “The Story of Hilo,” chronicles the history of Hilo from the area’s first contact with Western cultures in 1778 until the devastating 1946 tsunami that destroyed nearly a third of the community.

Museum curator and archivist Barbara Muffler said the exhibit benefits from a range of new photographs and testimony from tsunami survivors, as well as several artifacts recovered from the 1946 tsunami.

“It’s about the tenacity and resilience of the Hilo people in the face of adversity,” Muffler said.

Muffler said the museum accumulated several new hitherto unseen photographs of the disaster from various donors through the years. Several of these photos are featured in a new interactive touchscreen display, or are otherwise featured throughout the survivors’ stories.

These stories, brief vignettes told by survivors of the 1946 disaster or their relatives, each depict a relatable facet of a tragedy that killed 159 people. The stories range from remarkable — such as that of Henry Young, whose grandmother was swept nearly half a mile away, unharmed, while inside her Waipio residence — to tragic, such as the tale of Antone Aguiar, who sacrificed his life to free ships moored at the Hilo Wharf.

“People learn from stories,” Muffler said. “People like stories.”

The exhibit also features new artifacts dating from the day of the tsunami, recovered by chance in 2014.

Muffler said an archaeologist was present when a resurfacing of Kamehameha Avenue in 2014 uncovered several items that were buried by mud in the tsunami. These items include an 1883 Hawaiian dime, several marbles, railroad spikes and a curious item Muffler said she always wanted to find: an unbroken bottle, still sealed with a cork, yet with sand inside.

“The force of the water pushed sand through the cork,” Muffler said.

Muffler said she hopes the new additions are enough to entice previous patrons to return to the museum.

The last addition to the museum was the Science Room, a 2016 addition that explores the science behind the generation of tsunamis through a series of interactive exhibits. The Science Room and the new exhibit were funded by a grant from the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, with several items provided by donors, Muffler said.

Prospective museum donors can attend “An Evening of Aloha,” a benefit concert and dinner Oct. 13 at the Grand Naniloa Hotel featuring musicians Willie K, Mark Yamanaka and state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria. Individual tickets, which can be purchased for $75, are almost sold out. To purchase tickets, call the museum at 935-0926.

Muffler said the museum is an important resource for educating people about protective measures in case of a tsunami.

“People here need to know about tsunamis,” Muffler said. “Our whole mission is to help save lives.”

With the last damaging tsunami in Hilo a distant memory in 1960, another disaster is, for an island located in the center of a ring of seismic activity, inevitable.

However, even if another tsunami strikes the city, the museum will survive.

“All our archives are backed up offsite,” Muffler said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at


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