Posted on: Tuesday, January 9, 2001
Bishop Museum's salvation: research
By Tom Dye
Senior archaeologist with the International Archaeological Research Institute in Honolulu
Bishop Museums trustees will name the eighth director of that venerable local institution this year. The person they choose has the opportunity to make the museum a more positive force in the local economy, attract more tourists and rejuvenate its position as an interesting place for locals to explore.
How? By making a commitment to scholarly research.
There is no question in the international scholarly community that Bishop Museums ability to carry out research is at a low point. Too many highly qualified and productive professionals have left, taking with them the possibility of long-term projects that are the backbone of any museums research program.
The current research ebb is not the first in Bishop Museums 112-year history. There have been other times when the size of the research staff has shrunk, grant monies have fallen and the output of its press has dwindled.
History shows that a director committed to research can turn things around. Directors Herbert Gregory in the 1920s and Alexander Spoehr in the 1950s both built internationally renowned research programs at Bishop Museum.
How does a research program help Hawaii? Research funded by grants and contributions brings dollars into the state that wouldnt otherwise get here. Under Spoehrs directorship, research in Pacific entomology brought enough grant money to build three floors of Pauahi Hall, which today holds the third-largest collection of insects in the world. Local contributors added money for a fourth floor to house the botany department.
In the late 1960s, grants and contributions made up nearly two-thirds of Bishop Museums income. By the 1990s, they had fallen to less than one-fourth. They have been replaced by sources such as state government appropriations and visitor admission fees that recycle dollars that would have been spent here in Hawaii anyway.
Museum research is a clean industry. The dollars it attracts will improve our states economic health in several important ways.
Research money spent locally creates opportunities for local students to expand their intellectual horizons. My experience with Bishop Museum research as a teenager in the early 1970s propelled me from Kailua High School through the University of Hawaii to a Ph.D. at Yale University. More local kids deserve this kind of opportunity.
Local research can fuel creation of local exhibits. The museums current preference is to import exhibits from the Mainland. Some of these traveling exhibits are quite good my two girls and I were enthralled by the tyrannosaurus rex replica named Sue but Mainland exhibits cant begin to compete with local exhibits based on local research.
Local exhibits are put together by local artists and artisans, providing creative jobs in a labor market dominated by service industries. In contrast, visitor dollars spent on traveling exhibits benefit artists and artisans in places like Chicago or Milwaukee. Wed do better to keep that money at home.
Good local exhibits are likely to draw more tourists why fly to Hawaii to see an exhibit that will travel to a city near your Mainland home? Our unique natural and cultural histories set us apart from other tourist markets. Good local exhibits will spread this message.
Really good local exhibits have export potential. Traveling exhibits are popular in the museum world. Why not bring money to the state by sending our best exhibits on tour? Why not let museum-goers in New York, Denver and Atlanta help our local economy?
The best reason to make a commitment to scholarly research, though, is that its results interest locals. The museums translations of Hawaiian historians David Malo and Samuel Kamakau and their compilations of Abraham Fornanders investigations continue to play huge roles in the Hawaiian renaissance. What most people know about heiau today can be found in Bishop Museum publications.
Most of us have limited opportunities to explore the Islands and their history, to get to know the land, to investigate the works of those who came before us. We are too busy trying to make ends meet in an economy where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation.
At the same time, many of our remaining natural and cultural resources are fragile and would be harmed if we all decided to explore them. Scholars working under a director committed to bringing research results to the public can be our eyes and ears, helping us understand and appreciate the variety and diversity of our Island world.
Bishop Museums trustees should choose a director who supports and promotes scholarly research. Research strengthens the museums position as the place locals go to learn more about our Island home. A museum committed to scholarly research will improve the local economy, create interesting jobs and attract visitors interested in the unique cultural and natural history of our Islands.
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