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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 25, 2009

Hawaii's Bishop Museum struggles to survive recession


By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bishop Museum has laid off workers and closed its doors to the public on Tuesdays and three Sundays a month.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bishop Museum has laid off workers and closed its doors to the public on Tuesdays and three Sundays a month.

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Like museums across the country, Bishop Museum Hawai'i's premier historic and cultural institution is struggling to find ways to cope with the lingering economic recession. Dwindling grants, plummeting visitor arrivals, and poor investment returns have made that process especially painful.

Last month, the museum laid off 19 of its 215 employees, cut the hours of those remaining and instructed all department heads to trim budgets by between 10 and 15 percent. The museum will not be open on Tuesdays the first time in memory it has been closed to the public on a weekday. Meanwhile, the museum's Maritime Center at Aloha Tower has shut down completely until further notice.

These measures follow 14 layoffs last June, for a total workforce drop of around 15 percent in 11 months.

Blair Collis, chief operating officer and senior vice president, described the mood at the museum as one of anxiety and sorrow.

"It's understandable and acceptable that people are dealing with a little stress and sadness about this," he said. "The stress is not only the loss of people you've worked with, but also how do we go on and how do we manage?"

The state of the museum today is all the more painful in comparison with the success it enjoyed in the recent past.

In November 2005, the museum was on a roll. A $27 million surplus it had racked up during the previous two years was only overshadowed by the fact that it had all but doubled its endowment to $56 million during the previous four years.

That month, the museum opened its $17 million Science Adventure Center, which within a year would play a major role in bringing almost 100,000 additional visitors to the 330,000 folks the museum was already hosting annually.

The good fortune would last through much of 2007. But more than a year ago it was apparent the institution was experiencing sharp declines in revenues. By early 2008, the drain had accelerated to the point that the museum implemented a series of cost-saving measures, including program cutbacks and reductions in its hours of operation. Then, in June, came the first round of layoffs.

STAFF SUGGESTIONS

Before the latest round of layoffs, museum executives let employees know wage reductions would be necessary. Staffers were asked for suggestions about how best to implement those cuts. Their suggestions were weighed in making the final decision, said Collis.

The result was the reduction of hours from 40 to 36 per week which represents a substantial pay cut, but it also meant fewer workers would have to be let go.

"I'm not going to say everyone is quietly optimistic or happy," said Collis. "It's an emotional time. You're talking about people's lives here. It's not books on a shelf or something that you're just removing. You're talking about people who have been here a long time in some cases. They're hurting."

It isn't the first time staffers have felt the hurt. Things have been worse at the institution. In the mid-1980s, Bishop Museum was in such dire financial straits it came close to shutting down altogether. In 1985, it suffered a deficit of $750,000 and it was facing a decline of nearly twice that amount the following year.

In response, the museum let 13 employees go and began closing its doors three Sundays a month.

But those moves were only expected to stem the bleeding to a loss of $600,000 in 1986.

Still, the museum survived, but not without enduring 20 years of mission controversies, accusations of mismanagement, more layoffs, resignations, departmental infighting and cultural custody battles with Native Hawaiian factions before it finally achieved some sense of calm and financial security.

Most of the museum's current shortfall has been due to circumstances beyond its control, said Collis. For example, a $450,000 grant from the state was appropriated but never released to the museum. At the same time, its annual state subsidy was trimmed by 8 percent.

The museum's annual operating expenses, including capital projects, remain where they were in the glory days of 2005 and 2006 around $17 million.

And, contrary to what many believe, the museum has no financial tie with the multimillion-dollar Kamehameha Schools because it has operated under a trust separate from Kamehameha since 1892.

What has hurt the institution can be laid directly at the feet of the global financial meltdown and all it has wrought, Collis said. Erase that from the equation, and the museum has had one of its best years ever, he said. Membership is up. Tourist arrivals may have tanked, but residents are coming in strong numbers. Foundation contributions are higher than expected.

Come what may, the museum will survive, he said. And, although it may take awhile, it will prosper as well.

DEDICATED TO MISSION

Today, there is a sense of cooperation between museum management and employees that hasn't been there in the past, say folks who have been there awhile.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, the museum's public affairs director, reiterated that staff- ers' suggestions on how best to implement the pay cuts helped save jobs.

"We put in our ideas on what could happen," she said. "For instance, closing the museum going dark for one day a week was one suggestion. A lot of suggestions were shared. You've got 200 employees here, so it's not just one voice expressing an opinion."

The outcome was that a bad situation was made better, she said.

"There is a lot of good that still happens here," Dela Cruz said. "I definitely believe that those who are working here are dedicated to the museum's mission and want to see it succeed."