The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, a hub for sustainability in the heart of the Pacific-An interview with Christopher Hobbs.

by Valentina Bianchi

We had the pleasure of talking to Christopher Hobbs, Ki Champion and Curator of Sustainability at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii. Read on as he talks about the Bishop Museum, how it has reduced its electricity consumption, how it’s contributing to energy equitability, and in what ways it’s working to become a sustainability hub for the area.

Ki Culture: For people who might not know about the Bishop museum, could you give us a brief introduction?

Christopher Hobbs: The Bishop museum was founded in 1889 in honor of Bernice Pauahi Bishop. It was created to protect and care for the irreplaceable cultural treasures of the Hawaiian monarchy during a time of massive change in Hawaiian culture, when that monarchy was taken over by the U.S. Over time our focus has expanded to include natural sciences and today we have over 25 000 000 specimens and objects. We are considered one of the foremost cultural and natural history museums in Hawaii and the Pacific. Our mission is to inspire our community through exploration, celebration, and perpetuation of the extraordinary history and culture of the region. We continue to be a center for Hawaiian knowledge and history while being an advocate for modern sustainable practices, given that the roots of Hawaiian culture are deeply seated in the preservation of resources and conservation for future generations.

An image if a large building from a bird eye view. Around the building there’s luxurious vegetation and there are mountains in the background.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum Campus. Picture by Daniel Verderame

K.C.: Why did you choose to participate in Ki Futures and what is your role as a Ki Champion?

C.H.: I got involved with Ki Futures in 2021. I co-presented at the Canadian Museum Association conference with Carter O’Brien from the Field Museum and there we got to engage with a lot of people, one of which was Douglas Worts, one of the Ki Coaches for Ki Futures. He told me about the program, we had a couple of meetings and it sounded amazing. So, we signed up for the pilot program when that first started. We quickly found that the program was incredibly helpful, it gave us access to an amazing network of sustainability professionals, and to a forum where we could ask questions and discuss things quite openly. It also allowed us to participate in training sessions to understand the principles behind sustainability and in deeper dives to really get into the subjects, which was helpful for me and other members of the staff. As a Ki Champion I am a helpful part of this network, engaging with the forum, helping find solutions to the issues affecting most museums around the world, as well as being able to raise some of my own questions, get guidance and get help. I also work with my Ki Coach Lia, who is absolutely amazing, to develop goals and future initiatives. We also discuss in deep dives to really understands nuances and different points of view. I support cultural organizations around the world when I can through advice, engagement, and encouragement, creating a positive atmosphere to try and make things happen.

K.C.:Where does your interest in environmental issues come from? Why is it so important for a museum to be environmentally conscious and transparent about their efforts to become more sustainable?

I have a background in conservation and biodiversity research, I didn’t train specifically in sustainability. The environment has always been a key concern of mine; My PhD focused on conservation genetics of an endangered species in Europe and one of the things that was impacting the species was habitat frequentation. Being aware of the damage that humanity can cause to the environment that has knock-on effects on multiple things within it was always a huge part of my professional life. Before that though I grew up in South-East England in the County of Kent, also known as the garden of England, so I’ve always been surrounded by nature and I’ve always tried to get out in nature as much as possible. Understanding the beauty of the environment has fueled my passion to protect it. As far as the transparency of museums, they are the last bastions of informal education, especially for younger people. Museums are often a key part of people’s childhoods and inspire their interests and passions. Some people may take up certain career paths purely because of what they have encountered in a museum. Having sustainability at the forefront of the museum experience allows us to educate and inspire guests to become more sustainable and action meaningful change across the world. Becoming more sustainable as an institution and being transparent about it really allows museums to prove they are walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Showcasing the work that we and our partners do together with the technology that is used to achieve progress, understanding how it works, being able to group that with place-based culture, and connecting communities with all of it: that is the heart of museums and sustainability. I think it’s something that is going to keep developing and growing across the cultural sector.

Plastic building brick made at the Parley AIR Station from clean plastic lab waste from Bishop Museum lab. Picture by Chris Hobbs

K.C: How does the initial situation of the museum look like? Which areas are you trying to improve upon?

C.H.: The Bishop museum’s activities started in the late eighteen hundreds and some of the buildings date back to that period, while others were developed later over many decades. This situation presents a vast array of challenges to implementing sustainability. With such a long history it is so easy for things to fall into the cracks. Documents and plans are often missing, and people have moved on, so it’s very hard to keep track of all of this and coordinate across it. Moreover, as in many other institutions, sustainability has been done ad hoc; responsibility has been put on people who have taken an interest, but it’s on top of their own jobs. However, we started to work on it a bit more coherently and with more people in 2019, when we established a green team to find out problems and solutions, but there wasn’t a specific person in charge of coordinating the effort as their only job. In 2021 we created the “Curator of Sustainability” position which I currently hold which really helps to institutionalize sustainability in a coordinated way, allowing us to dig deep and push forward. At the moment I am approaching sustainability in a holistic way, looking at it from all angles, not just water and energy conservation. It’s about sustaining the staff, our community, cultures, and collections. I am developing a five-year plan for sustainability that links up to State and global initiatives, establishing sustainability champions at the museum who are responsible to disseminate and plan across every department. We are also implementing policies that engrain sustainability in our everyday work, hoping to align our institution with a sustainable mindset and move from there. You can’t build skyscrapers on sand, you need deep foundations.

K.C.: As the largest and most important museum in the State your mission includes representation of not only Hawaii but the Pacific at large. How does participating in an initiative like Ki Futures help you in terms of reputation?

C.H: Our mission, and one of our foundational elements, is the perpetuation of the extraordinary history, culture, and environment of Hawaii and the Pacific. So, sustainability must be part of everything we do, of every operation. If climate change is left unchecked a lot of that environment will be lost. If we can’t sustain our collections, we are losing some of the history of the islands. It’s our responsibility. Taking part in Ki Futures allows us to learn and follow best practices across the world, being supported as we influence change while in turn changing the operations of our museum to better sustain us and our community. It’s all well and good to say “our team needs to be more sustainable” but actually engaging with international programs like Ki Futures is key to that idea of walking the walk. All of it comes together in showing that we are making the right choices and moving forward with it. I hope that all that action is helping our reputation as leaders in sustainability especially in cultural institutions.

Numerous shelves full of specimens of various animals like butterflies and birds. A sign on the left reads “Taxonomy”
Recent exhibit “Taxonomy: Our Lives Depend on It” at Bishop Museum, showcasing specimens from the museum’s extensive Natural Sciences collections.

K.C.: What instruments did you find the most useful to realize your objective?

C.H: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Data was one of the key elements to realizing our objects. Carrying on with the sayings, a picture is worth a thousand words. Having these data and also being able to actually visualize them is an amazing element of our journey. We developed a series of interactive dashboards, graphical representations of data you can filter, explore, and really understand what’s going on. These dashboards are not just available to our staff, they are also publicly accessible. Anybody can go to our website and see how much energy we use and how much we spend on it each year. Museums use a lot of energy, for example, to preserve their collections with climate control, so understanding what we are doing and looking at ways to improve is crucial. Monitoring various metrics allows us to look at so many different data like our electricity use, our solar generation (we have solar panels), how much water we use, how much plastic we divert from the land field, and how much we don’t use by having water refilling stations in the campus. This helps us to decide what projects are our main priority and direct resources to the places they need to be. It also allows us to see what cumulative impact all these actions are having.

It’s hard to keep the momentum and support for change without reporting those numbers. For example, we dropped our energy use by 16% in the last two years simply through retrofits for LEDs, staff training, and other energy efficiency project. It all adds up quite quickly. We developed these dashboards in-house but if your museum doesn’t have the resources to do that, you can use something called the Energy Star Portfolio Manager for free.

K.C.: Sustainability is not just about a lower carbon footprint. What kind of impact are you hoping to have (or are you currently having) on the local community (what we might call Social Sustainability)?

C.H.: We are looking to strengthen our collaborations with our local community and local organizations across Hawaii. In the next years, we are looking to develop the museum into a hub for sustainability: a place for our partners to showcase sustainable technologies and practices, and where the community can learn from them, always rooting it in Hawaiian culture and knowledge. We want to keep looking at what techniques, values, thoughts, and stories this amazing native culture is based in. That’s what makes us unique. For instance, we’ve recently installed DC fast chargers on our campus which can charge an electric vehicle in 10 to 15 minutes as part of a major collaboration with a utility company based in the area. Anyone can charge their vehicle on our campus with them. One of the main issues regarding electrical vehicles at the moment is the non-equitability of charger availability in different parts of the city. Some areas have many while others are deserts of electrification. Our museum is in a disadvantaged social-economic area so having some chargers here helps fill in the electrification gaps. As a sort of added bonus, we engaged with local artists to decorate the chargers with works that feature Hawaiian iconography, thoughts, and values. It’s a living piece of art that serves a practical purpose.

DC fast charging station on Bishop Museum campus with artwork from local artist, Wooden Wave. Picture by Chris Hobbs

K.C: What are your hopes for the future?

C.H.: I like to think on a broad scale. I’m hoping that over the next few years we as a community are able to provide a resilient and equitable space for everyone. There are going to be so many hurdles to overcome as a species. A lot of challenging things are happening right now, but by working together and understanding each other we can overcome anything. Cultural institutions are at the heart of this, influencing change on a global scale through education and the activation and inspiration of our communities. If we act as leaders, we can help fight the climate crisis we find ourselves in, catalyzing influences that are changing the world. We are a small part of this but if we lobby and influence and inspire, we can help shape things for a better, more equitable future for everyone. It’s going to be a hard fight but with the right attitude and the right passion we can do it!

Visit the Bishop Museum website https://www.bishopmuseum.org/sustainability/ to learn more about their sustainable initiatives and discover Ki Futures at https://www.kiculture.org/ki-futures

Valentina Bianchi is a Brussels-based curator particularly interested in environmental questions and the role of art in our relationship with nature. She has been collaborating with Ki Culture since 2020 and is now contributing to interviews on the blog.

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