Visit the Lyman Museum and Mission House, Hilo’s Inconspicuous Gem

By Katie Young Yamanaka

The Lyman Museum & Mission House, Hawaii. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM.

Located off the beaten path in downtown Hilo, the Smithsonian-Affiliated Lyman Museum and Mission House — the Big Island’s only museum of natural and cultural history — is an inconspicuous gem not to be missed.

Earth and Island Heritage Collections

The museum has an Island Heritage gallery covering the pre-missionary and post-missionary eras, and an Earth Heritage gallery covering geological natural history. Photo: Les Williams.

The museum has a large collection of artifacts displayed in two galleries — Earth Heritage and Island Heritage — that showcase everything from what Hawaii looked like before humans to the tools ancient Hawaiians used to sustain life to items from the many immigrant groups who made Hawaii their home in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Lyman Museum offers an opportunity to learn about the Earth, Hawaii and its people through exhibits that you likely won’t find anywhere else.

A distinctive exhibit on Korea named “Grandfather’s House” explores 1930s life in the country through a traditional-style house that you can explore (just remove your shoes first).

Children and adults alike will delight in the museum’s fantastic collection of seashells, carefully displayed in pull-out drawers for easy (and fun) viewing.

A Noteworthy Rock and Mineral Collection

Mineral exhibit at the Lyman Museum. Photo: Les Williams.

Of special interest is the museum’s extensive display of minerals, which were part of Orlando Hammond Lyman’s personal collection.

Orlando Lyman was the great-grandson of missionary educators David and Sarah Lyman who came to Hilo in 1832. At a young age, Orlando Lyman showed a love for mineralogy, and his collection would grow to more than 30,000 specimens over his lifetime.

All those rocks took up a lot of room, so the Lyman Museum building was constructed to house them. The ancestral home had been saved from demolition years before, and in 1931 the Lyman House Memorial Museum was incorporated. The original Mission House showcased both family and donated items until the three-story museum you see today was constructed in 1971.

Orlando Lyman, who was an agronomist by profession, was the director of the museum for many years. He died in 1986, but his collection of mineral specimens from around the world, including gemstones, fossils and even minerals that glow in the dark, remains on display for the general public.

The exhibit showcases specimens from places as far away as India, Algeria, Turkey, and Zaire and is organized into “crystal systems” to give visitors a singular perspective on the building blocks of Earth’s crust.

In 1983, the Smithsonian Institution’s mineral curator even named it one of the 10 best collections in the United States.

Lyman Mission House

Built in 1839, the Lyman Mission was destined for demolition in the early part of the 20th century to make room for a road. Descendants of the founding missionaries saved the house by having it moved to its present location. The house was converted to a museum in 1931 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Photo: Les Williams.

At Lyman Museum, guests can also take guided tours of the Mission House, the oldest wood frame structure on the island, offered daily (check museum for tour times).

Special Exhibits

The museum also features several special exhibits throughout the year.

There is a video room where you can pop in to view everything from dramatic footage of the Kilauea lava flow that devastated the village of Kalapana in the early ’90s to a feature about the legendary big wave surfer Eddie Aikau. There are films that explore the history of local music, Big Island landscapes and even a videography about deep-water gelatinous animals that flourish miles from the Kona coast.

Information for Visiting

The Lyman Museum and Mission House is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 276 Haili Street in Hilo. For more information, call (808) 935-5021.

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