Museum officials tout the volcano as one of the nation's leading exhibits, as reporters toured the 16,500-square-foot building this week, dodging paint cans and ladders while walking through nearly completed darkened lava caverns, an aquarium and scores of galleries.
"What we have here is the first, and probably only, thematic science center in the world," museum president Bill Brown said. "It's quite sophisticated."
The center, set to open Nov. 19 after 10 years of planning and work, received $8 million in state money, $5 million in federal dollars and $4 million in grants and private donations.
Its top attraction, a two-story, man-made volcano that unexpectedly bubbles up in orange-tinged water and gases several times a day. The center also has a lava melting demonstration and two mini submarines that visitors can control to explore a deep ocean tank.
There are several interactive stations, including one where a block is dropped on a pool to mimic a landslide-triggered tsunami. In another, hot wax sprouts from beneath a table before hardening into miniature volcanoes.
Construction for the center was led by exhibit-design and planning firm Gyroscope Inc., based in Oakland, Calif., and architectural firm ZGF from Portland, Ore.
Hopes for the center are that it will not only teach people about the island's history, but also spark children's interest in science.
Students from three middle schools and two charter schools have already contributed to the center, creating fluorescent plastic foam planets, frogs, birds, fish and algae among other creatures that glow inside a dark tunnel.
About 350,000 people visit the museum each year, officials said. Attendance soared in 2003 with more than 500,000 people during a chocolate exhibit.
Museum officials hope the center will increase visitor flow by at least 15 percent with its wide display of different types of sand and lava as well as native and introduced marine, plant and animal life — many not found on Oahu.
"It really brings the volcanoes to them," worker Hiilani Shibata said, sweating inside a silver protective gear, which she wears to handle the 3,000-degree furnace where lava rocks are melted.