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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Bishop Museum goes headhunting

Bishop Museum photo gallery

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Background photos (clockwise from top left): Hawaiian Hall exterior; Hawaiian Origins Tunnel, Science Adventure Center; Kilauea Volcano exhibit, Science Adventure Center; Hawai'i Maritime Center; Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium.

Advertiser library photos; Photo illustration by MINETTE McCABE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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MUSEUM MILESTONES

The Bishop Museum marked these accomplishments during the tenure of president and CEO William Brown.

Opened $17-million Science and Adventure Center, all but $500,000 of which was paid before the first visitor arrived.

Launched $20-million restoration of museum's iconic, 116-year-old Hawaiian Hall.

Started ambitious global project to trace Hawai'i's roots back thousands of years, possibly to Chinese seafarers.

Planned for creation of high school for 120 students interested in learning about culture and the environment.

In 2003, completed renovation of the Watumull Planetarium, which has performances, tours and observatory programs.

In 2004, more than 110,000 people attended the museum's off-site exhibits, such as the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

With more than 25,000 visitors annually, the museum's Hawai'i Maritime Center at Honolulu Harbor became debt-free in April 2005.

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Bishop Museum board member Charman Akina knows the kind of candidate he wants to replace departing museum president and CEO William Brown.

"What we're looking for is someone exactly like Bill Brown," said Akina, who heads a search committee charged with finding Brown's successor.

"In just five years he's made the museum a warmer place, more open to the general public. I asked if they could clone him, but they told me no."

Brown, 58, who leaves Jan. 15 to head The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, is credited with having rescued a financially shaky Bishop Museum from disaster in 2001 after years of turmoil, infighting over the facility's direction, staff upheavals and mistrust on all sides.

He believes his legacy is the stability he brought to the institution.

A short list of his accomplishments includes completion of the $17 million Science Adventure Center, the largest number of annual visitors in the museum's history (last year's estimate of 425,000 people tops previous years by nearly 100,000), an endowment more than double what it was when he walked in the door, and an ambitious $20 million renovation of the museum's 116-year-old Hawaiian Hall, now under way.

"Those are big shoes to fill," said board member Mitch D'Olier. "And it's going to take us awhile to do it."

Brown has not dodged controversy, however. Some Hawaiians have strongly criticized his stewardship of burial objects that fall under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Ironically, that's an area Brown is particularly proud of.

"I'm glad to have stabilized the museum politically in its implementation of the laws that relate to the repatriation of artifacts," Brown said.

He's also proud of the fact that under his leadership, the number of the museum's Hawaiian directors has increased. Hawaiians now occupy more than half the 27 seats on the board, including the chairman and both vice chairs.

FAMILY BACK EAST

Brown is leaving Bishop Museum two years into his second four-year contract. His decision to go early is related to his wife, Mary McLeod, who works for the U.S. State Department, and his children, who live in Washington, D.C.

Left incomplete is Brown's dream of beginning a roughly $20 million project to renovate Bishop Hall for educational, archival, exhibition and library purposes.

But he is optimistic that the work will one day be done.

"That historic building can't be left to fall down," he said. "It was there from the beginning. So, that's the big unfinished project."

His departure leaves the direction of the museum somewhat in doubt, considering it could take up to a year to find someone to take his place.

In the interim, the task will go to Chief Financial Officer Michael Chinaka, who has no doubt about what playbook to follow.

"I'm going to pretty much keep the ship moving forward on what plans we had set up during Bill's time," said Chinaka.

The museum's strategic plan was updated about a year ago, and he intends to hold it as his guide.

"As long as we stick to that, I think we'll be fine," he said.

That should be good news to staff employees who may have worried about a mournful slide to the dark days of the past.

"I think that since our situation at this time is stable and our morale is good, the future doesn't seem threatening," said DeSoto Brown no relation collections manager of the museum's archives, who once described the atmosphere at the museum prior to William Brown as "embattled."

In only five years, that cloud has been lifted, he said.

"I'd like to see us continue in the same manner that we have been for the last few years," De-Soto Brown said.

BURIAL SITE BATTLE

There are those who see it differently. Brown has his critics most notably members of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei, an organization devoted to preserving Native Hawaiian burial sites.

Hui Malama became the focal point of a protracted legal battle over entitlement to 83 of the most sacred and cherished Hawaiian cultural objects that had been kept at the museum.

Having taken the items on loan from the museum in 2000, the group returned them to a Big Island cave from which it is believed the objects were taken and sold to the museum in 1905 by the Forbes Expedition pitting Hui Malama against 13 other Hawaiian groups that also claimed the objects.

Last month, the items were retrieved from the cave and returned to the museum, ending one chapter in the saga and setting the stage for the next.

Brown, who became embroiled in the controversy by virtue of his position, will return to the fray on Friday, when he presides over a meeting at the museum that will begin a "process to determine if any one of those 14 claimants is clearly the most closely and culturally affiliated with the artifacts."

If such a determination can be made, Brown said, the museum is legally obligated to hand over the artifacts to that group. Otherwise, federal statutes provide for the museum to hold the objects until such time as all 14 claimants reach an agreement on the outcome of the objects, he said.

That, he adds, "could take a lifetime."

HAWAIIAN SPLIT

Edward Halealoha Ayau, executive director of Hui Malama, who helped draft the national native burial laws, contends that Brown has consistently worked to subvert those laws in order to prevent any further repatriations from the museum.

Ayau accuses Brown of being "anti-repatriation." And he is not impressed by the fact that more than half the museum's board is Native Hawaiian.

"The general Hawaiian community is not part of the museum's direction," said Ayau. "If you look at the directors of the Bishop Museum, you tend to have people who are very affluent members of the community. Very few of them are cultural practitioners."

Brown waves off Ayau's comments.

"There are many Native Hawaiians who are deeply into their culture and should be respected for it," he said. "But the Native Hawaiians who are on the board are second fiddle to none.

"There are always going to be issues. Somebody's going to say you're awful. I don't think that can ever be completely avoided."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.