Desoto Brown: The Bishop Museum's Archivist

On The Heels Of His Newest Book, "Surfing"

Desoto Brown: The Bishop Museum's Archivist

How many times have you sat through Raiders of the Lost Ark, and at the film's close, as the attendant is wheeling the Ark of the Covenant through the grandiose warehouse stacked high with crates, thought: What if such a place existed"

How many of you wonder: What if there was such a place in Hawaii? Surely there has to be countless treasures that document the cultures of Hawaiian people? Are they organized somewhere? Well, surprise. There is such a place. And DeSoto Brown is the man who holds the key.

Brown's title--Archivist, Bishop Museum--is a position he has held "for as long as I can remember," he quips.

One of the perks of Brown's job at the Bishop--having the entirety of Hawaii's archival photos, documents, films, paintings, sculptures, letters, etc.--is that he is in perhaps the best position to write a book about the contents of the archives. His latest publication is simply titled "Surfing", and includes hundreds of photos on the subject, between range the 1890s and the 1960s.

The publication not only romanticizes a sport that is presently associated with adrenaline-pumping wave riding, but visually documents its origins--in the place that surfing originated-- while exposing its slow leak right up through the classes.

There are is a 1933 photo of Hollywood starlet Betty Compson prancing in front of a quartet of statuesque beach boys. Another depicts a squadron of army biplanes practicing maneuvers over the waves at Waikiki, the area's only two hotels visible below (the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider). A third shows Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku posing stoically with slugger Babe Ruth--the latter looking slightly out of place--clasping an oar instead of a Louisville Slugger.

We sat with Brown and discussed why his job is so important, who can take advantage of the treasures he guards, and a few of the gems that people might not know lie in waiting.

B on Hawaii: First off, how did the book come about? Was there an abundance of surf memorabilia at the Bishop that was itching to be seen, or is it a passion of yours?

DeSoto Brown: I had wanted to do a book of this type for a while. I had wanted to use all these images that I had catalogued in the archive--as I've been helping others to do for year. But I know the collection better than anyone. So I thought, if someone is going to do this, it has to be me. A year later, and some lost sanity, the book was born.

B on Hawaii: Who published it?

Desoto Brown: Bishop Museum Press published it. And all the proceeds from the sale of the book will go back to the Bishop. Thankfully.

B: Why thankfully? Man's gotta eat! No?

Desoto Brown: Well, yes and no. In short, the tasks left up to the Bishop Museum are so great, that I am fairly certain most people have no idea what has been left for us to do.

In short, people should know that throughout the course of history, people have been recording bits and pieces of Hawaii's colored history on a very wide variety of technological formats. As we move through time, each of these formats becomes less and less used, until it is obsolete.

We at the Bishop have to take everything we have in the collection--literally more than a million items--and put them in to the most modern format we can. And the kicker is that where most people would then throw away the old technology, we can't. We hold on to everything. Because the manner in which we've recorded the history, has then become a part of history itself. Follow?

It's quite an ongoing process. It's both costly and time consuming; yet it's essential to preserving Hawaii's history.

B: Can you give us an example?

Desoto Brown: Of course, this is one of my favorites. We have an audio recording that was made in the early 1930s. It was captured on what was called a 'cylinder'--which predated disk recording, like records. It's a series of chants as performed by a man named Kuluwai Maka--who was the last official, royal chanter in Hawaii's history. He worked directly for King Kalakaua.

In the cylinders, you can hear each chant sung in a variety of tones. Kuluwai was documenting how the same chant could be used on different occasions, as requested by the king. It's something we didn't know was done until this recording; that upon the King's request, a chanter would adjust the technique of a known chant to fit the occasion.

Now, although this man worked for the King in to the 20th century, he was born in the 1850s; he probably learned the chants around 1870. The chanting that you can hear on this cylinder are the sounds of Hawaiian chanting from 2 centuries ago. That's serious stuff.

B on Hawaii: I have chicken skin just thinking about it.

Desoto Brown: I get it too, still!

B on Hawaii: Now that you got us started, can you tell us a couple more treasures in the collection?

Desoto Brown: Of course. In 1895, there was a counter-revolution to overthrow the government of the Republic of Hawaii. As most people know, when the revolution was put down, the two main leaders--Robert Wilcox and Queen Liliuokalani--were captured.

Two years later, the president of the Republic of Hawaii, Sanford Dole, pardoned them both, thus ending the Queen's exile in her own home.

We have, at the Bishop, the original, hand written, and rather ornate pardon documents, with the official governmental seal and everything. It's a spectacular piece of history.

B on Hawaii: I'll say. Give the readers one more, I know they're on the edge of their seats.

Desoto Brown: We have a great archive of photos from the tsunami that struck the islands in 1946. It was rather substantial, and more than a 100 people died on the Big Island alone. A small handful of the photos actually show one of the giant waves approaching Hilo--just before it hit the town. I'm not sure what ever happened to the photographer, but... we have the shot.

B on Hawaii: How about some of the film footage you have? What's the oldest?

Desoto Brown: We have a film that dates to 1906, believe it or not. It's a splicing of random scenes from around Hawaii, filmed for the Thomas Edison Company.

Better yet, we have an original film from 1915--that was shot on 35 mm. It's the documentation of a couple's honeymoon, shot entirely by the husband. He was a photographer in Hollywood, and managed to get a studio to let him borrow the rather cumbersome camera and gear. It was very rare for someone to just shoot 35 mm film for fun, as it was quite a process, and the camera rather heavy. By 1923 we begin to see a lot of 16 mm stuff, but this one film is rather unique.

B on Hawaii: So what would you like to tell the readers that they might not already know about the Bishop's collection, and it's accessibility?

Desoto Brown: Every single thing we have in the collection is viewable to the public, during viewing hours, for free. There are no obligations to buy anything--however, you can. You can purchase photographs or scans, all of which we take care of here.

B on Hawaii: Wow! The whole collection? Who takes advantage of this?

Desoto Brown: Not many people, unfortunately. I think you really need to have an interest in Hawaii, for real. And I think a lot of people do. But they rarely take the time to investigate the things that interest them. I wish they would.

We sometimes get T.V. producers, authors, and even teachers, looking to get copies of pictures to run with a project they are working on. But that can be difficult, as they come in with this idea of finding an image to fit something they've already organized, and it's often hard to find that one, perfect picture.

B on Hawaii: What would you suggest?

Desoto Brown: People should come in here with an interest, a field, in mind. And then I can point them in the right direction. The things that they may uncover are endless, and can be really exciting.

An example is that I get people coming in from time to time who want a copy of a picture they saw in a book, or on a PBS show. And it's great that they came in. But when I tell them that there are dozens of photos like those that no one has seen before, nor copied or used in a show, they often aren't eager to stray the path. I wish people would get as excited about it as I do. There are treasures in here that no one has really seen.

B on Hawaii: Are there any people that have taken advantage of the collection?

Desoto Brown: Actually, the Halau Lokahi charter school assigned a project to its students that had them come in and create unique presentations with things they could find in the archives. The kids were genuinely in to it--some of them put together really compelling presentations. We'd love to see more of that.

B on Hawaii: Thank you so much for your time DeSoto. Would you mind sharing with readers the archive's public hours"

Desoto Brown: Of course. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m., and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

"We have an audio recording of the last royal chanter, made in the early 1930s. It was captured on what was called a 'cylinder', which predated disk recording."