Bishop Museum’s director seeks the best ways to tell Hawaii’s stories
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 17, 2011
At 39, Blair Collis is younger than most anything in the Bishop Museum’s myriad collections on Hawaiian culture and natural history.
Still, in the total of nine years he’s been with the institution — a relatively short time to ascend to the director’s chair in the museum world — Collis has immersed himself in the full range of Bishop initiatives. He speaks with equal animation about archaeology, education, publishing and the people-friendly exhibitions he considers central to the way the museum connects with its public.
The Sydney-born Collis came to the University of Hawaii on a tennis scholarship 20 years ago. He has two sons and a stepson — “my personal board of directors,” he said — to serve as touchstones on how programs resonate with the young people the Bishop wants to reach.
His prior posts covering museum marketing, publishing and operations reflect Collis’ academic background in business, an orientation that may be key to survival in this realm, too. In a few weeks, a strategic plan will be out to chart such a course for the Bishop.
“I’m very fortunate that I have a variety of experts around me in the disciplines they are well known for. It’s about engaging them on those topics and listening,” he said. “But we need to stay in business. We’re in the business of being around forever.”
QUESTION: Any surprises during the renovations of Hawaiian Hall?
ANSWER: I think there are always going to be complications when you're looking to do a renovation like this, because it’s a historic landmark, very important culturally.
And so, surprises? Good surprises, actually, in some cases. We had a situation where we had the beautiful columns that were really being blocked, I would say, not revealed to their full beauty, under white paint … they’re metal forms for columns, and beautiful details …
because the building was so hot during its time that they at some point painted the ceilings and these columns white. … Revealing the building’s innate beauty was really a surprise beyond expectations.
Q: What capital improvements are coming next?
A: The major component is Polynesian Hall, which is the gallery on the second and third floors. That will run through August of next year. There are other aspects: Just driving on our campus you see that there have been improvements to the corner landscaping. We’ve added new walkways recently. We’ve renovated and painted structures, restored some facades, due to the generosity of the Legislature in the last couple of years. We’ve also been able to start to install energy-efficiency technology with some capital improvement money as well. … We have a large electric bill, as you can expect.
Q: How would you say the publishing part of the museum’s mission is going?
A: The book publishing operation has gone extremely well. I came in and, you know, it’s a good metaphor for the institution, I think. It has a great history, great resources to do a lot of incredible things. And it has done a lot of incredible things over its time. It just needed some reconfiguration and some work. And I think we’re able to gauge the community more than ever, and it continues on.
Q: How is the museum press dealing with the turmoil in the publishing industry? Or is that a secondary concern in your mission?
A: You know, I think it’s one of the primary things that we do. Our role is to tell the stories of Hawaii, its cultural and natural environment, and you can do that in a variety of ways. A good one is to do it through book publishing. … We look at what we’re publishing in the sense of how it relates to our mission. We see it as both an opportunity to generate interest in the institution and serve our mission through that.
Q: Is the museum pursuing e-book publishing?
A: Yes, actually, we are in the next 90 days going to be publishing e-book versions of a couple of our books: “Folk Tales of Hawaii” and “Hawaiian Antiquities.” … The question will be, going forward, each time a reprint comes up, do we want to print entirely hard copies, or do we want to look at a blend of printing and e-book publication, to be able to disseminate that.
Q: What are the Bishop’s principal challenges?
A: Money is always the big issue. Just like everyone else, we've had to face the same challenges in Hawaii, particularly nonprofits. … Grants become more competitive, because other nonprofits are looking, too.
Q: What’s going on in research?
A: (Anthropology chairman) Tianlong Jiao is in China right now working on — predating Han Chinese — the Austronesians and their links through navigation and their culture throughout the Pacific and Polynesia, ultimately Native Hawaiians. … In fact, I think we've generated such interest in that region of China that we’ve recently opened two exhibits on the same thing, one after the other. I just came back from Zhejiang Provincial Museum, where we opened an exhibit on Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, because they’re really starting to see that there are links.
Q: Is the balance of research and public programs still an issue at the museum?
A: Yes, from time to time. … We’ve been going through a strategic planning process and trying to figure out where it all fits in. And I think the outcome, which we’ll be rolling out in the coming months, the strategic plan, really calls for educational and public engagement.
But it has to be underpinned by scholarship and native ways of knowing and understanding. Our commitment is to try to create those convergences of native culture and natural environment, and have the body of information necessary to present it in a way that’s most effective, and hopefully support the greater community’s need in terms of education. Formal education has its own challenges right now in terms of resources, and I see the museum’s role in supplementing and supporting that formal education with premiere, innovative informal educational experiences.
Q: What form would that take?
A: It can happen in a variety of ways. I think Hawaiian Hall is a good example, where we took Farrington High School kids and Kamehameha kids over to the museum and had them work with us on the hale pili (traditional dwelling) in Hawaiian Hall, and directly have meaningful educational experiences that allow them to engage in the process of restoring that hale. … I think that’s what the museum can provide. We have collections, we have world-class researchers, we have a facility that can be a gathering place for that.
Q: Your new strategic plan — would you say it’s a change in direction or basically a mission refinement?
A: I think it’s a refinement. We had to look at what we feel were our opportunities and our strengths, draw upon what the intent of the institution’s founding were. And I think the board felt that we’re here to provide a place to learn about Hawaiian culture and natural environment, and the context under which that history and ever-changing evolution continues.
Q: Is there an interest in bringing back satellite museum exhibits around the islands?
A: We’re going to look at that. … Our goal is to deliver these stories. Is this the means to do that? Are there other ways? E-books are the perfect example. There’s more than one way to go about delivering mission. … We continue to do outreach programming. We serve about 13,000 to 20,000 kids on average a year through those outreach programs across the islands. So, we’re committed to that. It’s making sure we understand that sustainability is a long-term prospect. We’re going to be around forever. We need to make sure we have the resources to do that.