Plantation museum waits for right time to reopen

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Plantation Museum volunteer Karl Eschbach walks around the closed museum on July 17 in Papaikou. The museum is closed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

The Hawaii Plantation Museum is closed indefinitely as the COVID-19 pandemic and travel quarantine persists.

The museum in Papaikou closed in March with a plan to reopen on June 1. The reopening date was changed when Gov. David Ige extended the 14-day quarantine for out of state travelers.

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“We realized that COVID was calling the shots and not us,” volunteer Karl Eschbach said. “However, there is no plan to close the museum permanently.”

A team of volunteers works at the museum, which is dedicated to telling the stories of Hawaiian plantation workers. The small museum receives consistent visitors that are split almost equally between tourists and residents.

“Our staff of volunteers are mostly retired seniors, which is the group at higher risk of (contracting) the virus,” Eschbach said. “This is matched by our visitors, who are mostly kupuna as well.”

The museum is packed with antiques and a visual history of plantation life. It is difficult to physically distance from others in the small space and constant cleaning is not possible with a volunteer staff.

“It just seems practical for the community to stay closed for the foreseeable future,” Eschbach said.

Wayne Subica opened the museum with his own collection in 2013. With a volunteer staff and limited bills, the museum is in a safe space to remain closed for an indefinite amount of time.

“We’re in a place where we can sit tight until the time is right,” Eschbach said. “We have a very light footprint of bills, which has been alleviated by donations from members and benefactors.”

Subica has been putting the museum together for decades. Coming from an old plantation family, he has collected hundreds of items and has records for past plantation workers, Eschbach said.

“Many of our local visitors come for the nostalgia the museum brings them,” Eschbach said. “We could talk for hours with people about their families and the past, which we can see in front of us.”

Although there were mostly local visitors in the beginning, mainlanders have been coming more and more to see if they can find any information on their families’ pasts.

“Oftentimes, Wayne will have all the records and information on someone’s family and visitors can discover a vivid past,” Eschbach said. “After a few years, I realized anything can happen here.”

There are multigenerational plantation families throughout the country that have learned about the plantation past through the museum. Subica and his staff plan to keep this up as soon as it is safe to do so.

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“The museum really brings people together, which is exactly what we need to avoid right now,” Eschbach said.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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