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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 30, 2001

Small shoes to be filled at Bishop Museum

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Columnist

The new head of the Bishop Museum breezed through town last week on a get-acquainted visit. From now on, though, life is going to be anything but a breeze for William Yancy Brown.

Brown, who takes over the museum from retiring director W. Donald Duckworth, is stepping into some very small shoes. He's going to feel them pinching on all sides for quite a while. Duckworth leaves behind a museum that's far diminished from its heyday, and not nearly as well respected, neither locally nor internationally, as it was when he took over 16 years ago.

Under him, research was slashed and publications curtailed. Relations with the Hawaiian community were damaged, perhaps irrevocably. Non-traditional shows, like the animated dinosaur one, brought new people into the museum, but alienated traditionalists. Some of the most precious items in the collection were stolen or loaned improperly.

Big donors abandoned the museum in droves: While the Honolulu Academy of Arts could quickly raise $16 million for its new wing in a disastrous economy, the Bishop Museum's fund-raising for a new Science Center is almost moribund.

What's more, the very purpose and meaning of museums is being challenged around the world; they are suffering an identity crisis. The usual adage that museums are our secular cathedrals, repositories of collective values and histories, is being challenged on all fronts.

In New York, the biggest museums are relying on shows of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's clothes and Giorgio Armani gowns to lure people in. One of the nation's best art collections may now be seen in Steve Wynn's Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas; the Guggenheim and Hermitage museums are responding by opening a joint museum across the strip at the Venetian Hotel.

In Paris, a museum is displaying a giant model of a human digestive tract, complete with output, and calling it art. In the world's poorest countries, museum expenditures for art are being criticized when many people can't afford one meal a day.

"Museums are at a crossroads and need to decide which way they are going," the New York Times reported recently. "They don't know whether they are more like universities or Disneyland, and lurch from one to another."

Certainly that describes our own museum in recent years. It's the biggest challenge facing Brown as he takes over at the 112-year-old institution. A lot of people are going to be pulling him in a lot of directions, and expecting great results on every front.

Brown, who comes with wide-ranging credentials that seem appropriate for the job, said all the right things in his visit. He promised to beef up the research staff, seek advice from the staff and community, draw more involvement from Native Hawaiians, expand interactive education, maintain the 2 million-item collection and reach out to new audiences.

None of that is going to be easy. You wouldn't want to be in his shoes.