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Researchers are key to Bishop Museum’s future

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  • Patrick V. Kirch is a Hawaii-born archaeologist who worked for the Bishop Museum from 1974-84 and later served as director of Seattle’s Burke Museum and Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology. He is chancellor’s professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Several days ago, Bishop Museum’s president, Blair Collis, announced major shake-ups at the museum, including turning full-time scientific staff into casual hires responsible for finding their own research money (“Bishop’s next move,” Star-Advertiser, Jan. 9).

Faced with the loss of federal earmarks and lingering effects of the 2009 financial crisis, the museum cannot afford to pick up the tab for research, it was reported.

Collis called this new model of researchers paying their own way a growing trend in science.

The problem with Bishop Museum’s new “business model” is precisely that the museum is not a business.

Since its founding in 1889, the museum’s mission has been to seek new knowledge about the island cultures and natural history of Hawaii and the Pacific.

Bishop Museum has a distinguished history of research, epitomized in its hundreds of scholarly publications, as well as in its public exhibits. So much of what we have learned about Hawaiian and Pacific archaeology and history, about island biodiversity, and the evolution of island life, has come from the painstaking work of Bishop Museum researchers.

Moreover, most of the museum’s renowned collections were acquired through the tireless fieldwork and expeditions of its former researchers.

Without the cumulative work of its research staff, Bishop Museum would not be what it is today.

Unfortunately, research at Bishop Museum has been on a steady decline over the past three decades.

In the early 1980s, I was one of almost 30 Ph.D. researchers on the museum’s staff. Today, the research staff numbers fewer than 10. If Collis’ new plan goes through, I predict that soon there will be no researchers left.

Why does this matter? Because a museum that ceases to pursue the frontiers of knowledge, that just cares for its existing collections but doesn’t add to them or study them in new ways, will soon become a static, fossilized, dead museum. And the repercussions will ripple through all of the museum’s other departments. Its exhibits will no longer be informed by the latest findings; its education programs will become stale, regurgitating outdated ideas and concepts. It will slowly but surely become little more than a “museum of a museum” that once was.

To be sure, Bishop Museum needs to get its financial house in order. But turning its researchers into unpaid contractors won’t solve the problem. In fact, the museum’s researchers have historically brought significant research dollars into the museum, funding most of the costs of their investigations.

Most research grants include substantial indirect costs or “overhead” that helps to pay for everything from accounting and security to the electricity bill. So letting the researchers go won’t solve the museum’s fiscal crisis — but will do irreparable harm to the museum’s ability to fulfill its mission.

And Collis is wrong to say that his plan is the new trend in museums. He should look to San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, which recently announced that it will expand its research staff with a cluster hire of six new scientists, because the academy’s leadership understands that research is one of the fundamental — in fact essential — functions of a museum.

Collis and his board of trustees face daunting challenges, and I wish them well in their efforts to solve Bishop Museum’s financial crisis. But they need to recognize that the museum is not a “business” in which the bottom line is measured only in dollars and cents.

At Bishop Museum, the bottom line is the acquisition, perpetuation and dissemination of knowledge about Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. And without a research staff, that bottom line will always be in the red.

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  • The strongest resource of Bishop Museum are its talented researchers. When ‘bean counters’ start looking at funding an audit may uncover the hidden.

    • POrofessor Kirch is an internationally respected scholar whose work about the Pacific and Hawaii are illuminating. Much of what he has discovered has exposed the weak Hawaiian “Studies” Dept. as being largely ideological and political rather than scientific. I agree with him that Bishop Museum can once again be a place where legitimate independent research can be done.It should be supported. The Museum, alas, has had management problems and poor leadership for years.

  • Allie: despite what you’ve mentioned, there is a place for independent research outside of the university. It kind of keeps everyone honest. We are fortunate to have an institution like the Bishop museum. It has an international reputation in Polynesian studies. You might recall Dr. Yoshiko Sinoto. He changed the paradigm of Hawaiian archaeology with his finds of fishhooks and needles in Hawaii Kai in the ’50s. Just saying.

    • I totally agree. I would love to see, as Pat would, the Bishop Museum to retain its mission and remain an independent center for unbiased research that we can actually use because it is fact-based. The entire UH campus is sick of the Hawaiian Studies shibai which uses ideology and fanciful research to replace actual information we can use to understand the history of Hawaii. Sad that a Berkeley professor should be the one to remind us of what is good for us here. I understand he is a Punahou graduate so he may be a local person. I have read some of his many books. Very bright and good person with no ax to grind.

      • Allie, you may identify him as a “Berkeley professor” now, but he is truly an island boy….He established his “roots” at the Bishop museum many years ago, and was a classmate of mine at Punahou. He is very familiar with the protocol at the Bishop museum and what is important for Hawaii.

        • Yes, I agree. I was referring to his current address. I agree that he is a gem. I wish him luck in influencing the Museum’s direction.

        • Allie dear, what what you say about Berkeley Grads. I have two degrees from UCB. One in Cultural Anthro, the other in Biochem. 🙂

      • Oh, by the way Allie. You might be interested to know that I meat Lanada and Russell Means when I was at Berkeley. I was impressed with both of them. I am also a supporter of the First Nations..

  • As an outsider looking in, but also as a person who has spent most of my life in academia, I believe that poor leadership and lack of vision has consistently been the crux of most problems. Acquisition of knowledge is now universally measured in dollars and cents. How do you put a price on the perpetuation of a precious culture?

  • Prof. Kirch was at Bishop Museum for 10 years (1974-1985) as an archeologist under the long time director Kenneth Emory (1897-1992). At one time before Kirch left Bishop Museum, he was being considered to succeed Emory. When Kirch was passed over, he left for the mainland and a very successful career specializing in Pacific Island archeology. I’ve often wondered if Bishop Museum’s outcome would have been much better with Kirch as director. Kirch graduated from Punahou High School in 1968 and his father was a Professor of Agriculture at the University of Hawaii.

    • Interesting information. I agree. He should have been appointed CEO. Donors will step forward when they have faith in a mission, in leadership and the governance of an organization. I am from North Dakota and am indigenous so I know something about native American scholarship and museums. I also am a graduate student at the UH. I say let Professor Kirch lead the Bishop Museum back to its glory days. I hope whoever is on their governance board will also study this matter and take some leadership. We have too many organizations out here who have really not lived up to their charters or original mission statement. That is just bad practice.

  • allie wasting her time in college. Get a real job already. Be a barista or a smoothie maker. The sooner you start, the sooner you will become a millionaire like I am.

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