Turmoil at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum
Fears abound for the collection-rich, cash-poor Hawaiian institution
by Georgina Adam, The Art Newspaper, July 25, 2016 (excerpts)
The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii, which holds the world’s largest and most important collection of cultural artifacts and natural history specimens from the Pacific Basin and Oceania, has seen some challenging times. Following a scandal over the alleged misuse of funds by its former director, the institution’s finances remain perilous and researchers claim that much of the collection is inaccessible, leading to fears that some pieces might have disappeared. …
According to the Munich-based art dealer Daniel Blau, who has published books on Pacific culture, “access to the archives has been obstructed and in some cases even made impossible”, despite repeated requests. Most of the museum’s research staff has now gone, he says, after the museum converted them into contractors who were responsible for their own funding.
Meanwhile, some precious items in the collection have not been seen publicly for years, in particular a group of 83 native Hawaiian artifacts. The objects—including wooden statuettes, tools and carved bowls—were the subject of a complex custody battle after they were uncovered in caves in Kawaihae in the early 20th century. In 2000, the museum handed over the so-called “Forbes cave” artifacts to an association of native Hawaiians, who reburied them. But they were returned to the museum in 2006 as part of a settlement. According to local press reports, a number of Hawaiian organizations continue to maintain a claim to the objects.
Asked about lack of access to the collections, the museum spokesman says: “Bishop Museum’s collections consist of more than 25 million items, including over 22 million biological specimens and more than two million cultural artifacts, derived from a legacy of research spanning more than 125 years. While not all collection items are on display, the museum leverages in-house exhibits and other avenues to showcase different artifacts as relevant opportunities arise.” He denied that there was any plan “presently” to raise funds by selling some of the artifacts.
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