History of Bishop Museum Press

Bishop Museum Press staff Wilmot H. Fitzgerald in Press storage, ca. 1965. Bishop Museum Archives. SP 215866.

The Bishop Museum Press, Hawai‘i’s oldest book publisher and one of the first scholarly publishers in the Western Hemisphere, was established in 1892 by the first director of the Bishop Museum, Dr. William T. Brigham. Having been officially appointed by Charles Reed Bishop in February of 1891 for the sum of $2500 a year, the young Harvard graduate and former instructor at Oahu College (now Punahou School) immediately set out to catalog the vast collections donated by its founders. The trustees of the Museum agreed to Brigham’s request to purchase a small printing press, made by Golding and Company of Boston, for printing of labels used in the exhibition halls of the Museum.

Soon after, Brigham was able to convince Charles Reed Bishop that the Museum’s activities could be extended to include the publication of information about specimens on exhibit. The first Press publication was the Museum’s Preliminary Catalog written by Dr. Brigham in 1892–93, when he was the sole member of the staff working with the first 6,000 specimens in the original three-room building. The trustees, understanding the magnitude of this task, authorized Dr. Brigham to close the Museum, which had been open to visitors one day a week “to give his undivided attention to the compilation of the draft of the Catalogue.”

In 1899 the trustees authorized the publication of the first issue in the Museum’s scientific series. A total of 300 copies were printed of a memoir on Hawaiian featherwork written by the director. It is worth noting that the four issues published in 1903 sold for a total cost of $3.60. If available for sale today, they would fetch well over $1500 for the set.

The expansion of Press publications to include areas of the Pacific was aided in 1920 when the Museum began its collaboration with Yale University. This collaboration made available the funds necessary to finance a number of expeditions to Pacific islands hitherto unexplored by Bishop Museum or any other institution.  Yale fellowships provided grants for scientists to go individually or in small groups to study the ethnology or natural history of the Pacific islands. As a result of this new emphasis on the Pacific, the period between 1920 and 1930 was one of great activity in research and writing with the establishment of the Bishop Museum Press Bulletin Series in 1922 as the appropriate form for publishing longer research papers.

In 1949 the Press discontinued the Memoirs series, having published 49 issues over the previous fifty years. Four years later in 1953 the newly formed Bishop Museum Association coordinated and distributed the Museum’s first Annual Report through the Press and distributed these to the members of the Association along with a gift publication. Explorers of the Pacific by Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) represented the Museum’s first step into the field of commercially oriented publications. Falling under the term “Special Publications,” the Museum re-dedicated this category of its publishing efforts to better serve the Museum’s public as “well-written non-technical booklets on Hawai‘i and the Pacific.”  It is believed that around this time the Bishop Museum Press adopted its famous petroglyph logo to symbolize the Bishop Museum Press’s kuleana to publish books that advance the understanding of cultural and natural history of Hawai‘i and the Pacific in a way that honors traditional knowledge systems as well as Western schools of thought.

Today the Bishop Museum Press continues its legacy of excellence and service to Hawai‘i and the world, having published over 1200 titles and distributed over 1,000,000 books in 72 countries worldwide. Many of the Museum’s titles such as Abraham Fornander’s Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore and Sir Peter Buck’s (Te Rangi Hiroa) Arts & Crafts of Hawaii are considered seminal works in the field of Hawaiian culture and history. While more recent publications such as Mary Kawena Pukui’s masterpiece Ōlelo Noeau, Isabella Aiona Abbott’s Laau Hawaii: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants, and Lilikala Kameeleihiwa’s Native Land Foreign Desires (Pehea La E Pono Ai?) continue to resonate with new generations and have expanded our collective understanding and appreciation of Hawai‘i’s rich cultural and natural history. The Bishop Museum Press is committed to remaining a leader in the publication of scholarly works on topics related to Hawai‘i and the Pacific while continuing to develop its non-scholarly publications so that it may better serve Hawai‘i’s people.

A customer explores Bishop Museum Press children’s titles at Bishop Museum’s 2021 Science & Sustainability Festival, 3/21/21.