Bishop Museum’s DeSoto Brown is the keeper of some of Hawai‘i’s most treasured art and artifacts.
Curious, inquisitive, a seeker of information and a reader of anything and everything, DeSoto Brown might have become a professor or a detective. Lucky for the historical wealth of Hawai‘i, he became a sleuth for culture and history.
“As a kid, I read everything, even old phonebooks,” Brown says.
He saw history in everything in print, and didn’t want to see it disappear. Of course, at age 10, he didn’t imagine that he would become an archivist, collection manager and historian of the world-famous Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
The thrill of historical discovery is in his genes. Brown is the great-grandson of John Papa ‘I‘i, the 19th-century Hawaiian historian, writer and adviser to Hawaiian kings.
Brown says, “I started by chance. By the time I was 10, I knew I had to save things, that somebody had to save things.”
In his teens, he says he was saving the history of the 20th century. By the 1960s, he was wondering what Hawai‘i was like before cars, before television and before he was born. In the 1970s, he zeroed in on images that informed the world about Hawai‘i: art by commercial artists presenting the fantasy of a lovely maiden leaning against a palm tree, strumming an ‘ukulele in the moonlight.
“Postcards, magazine ads, travel posters, many thousands of each, were probably discarded. They were ephemera, not important enough to save, like a hard-cover book would have been.”
He describes the era as lucky because some of the images survived and lived on, bound into few bound books he found in the state library and archives and in the University of Hawai‘i library.
“Today,” he says, “people need to see these.” He suggests we think how they changed the Hawaiian Islands.
Brown attended Punahou School, and graduated cum laude in communication arts from Hawai‘i Loa College in 1978. Some time spent in mainstream retail might be considered his graduate-level study. “It wasn’t a career, but I did visual marketing for the Andrade stores.”
Now only a memory, the stores were the trendsetters for an era of retail history. Another pivotal moment was Brown’s opportunity to catalog all the photos, taken in the ’50s and ’60s by well-known Hawai‘i photographer Lawrence Hata. The collection was a window into life in the isles.
Brown published his first book in 1982, called Hawaii Recalls: Selling Romance to America. Another five books followed, plus nine or 10 as coauthor, dozens of magazine articles and half a dozen video productions.
Always taking what is called a “busman’s holiday,” Brown loves to travel to see cities, towns and museums with Hawaiian contents, as well as observe how they report their own history. On one day in England, he did a sweep of three museums. At the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby, he saw the bound volumes of Hawaiian kapa. He says that back in the day, kapa was an English curiosity, as was a place that didn’t make fabric, had no looms and created yardage from plants. The books date to the 1700s, when kapa was cut in tiny squares and glued to 100-percent rag paper pages—which are non-acidic and thereby long-lasting antiquities. Brown says that his cab driver in Liverpool may have been the most creative guide. “He played Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross the Mersey as he showed me docks, the first public toilet and the one 19th-century building left.”
Brown says Hawai‘i has remnants of the past; they are just sometimes harder to learn. He recommends a drive up Tantalus to Round Top lookout: “The freeway, the new buildings still leave a clear view of ‘Iolani Palace, the historic buildings, Aloha Tower. Think about how only a hundred years ago, Waikiki and Honolulu were separate cities. Or, take a walk downtown and see the remnants of the city.”
He remembers hanging out with his dad, going to Alexander Young Hotel (now Bishop Square), riding the click-clack wooden escalator at Liberty House (now Macy’s) and First National Bank, now First Hawaiian Bank, with a giant scale to tell your weight. “They had a hook on the side, so women didn’t have to weigh with their handbag.” The scale is still there. Before the last of the Chinatown stores were torn down or updated, he wandered the shelves, and found World War II paper stickers at a store named Li Fong.
Where does DeSoto Brown want to go next? Berlin and Havana—one modernized, the other frozen in 1959. Meanwhile, he educates—himself and everyone who is searching for history—at Bishop Museum’s Archives. If we want to know anything, need to confirm even the smallest factoid, we know where to go and whom to ask. If DeSoto doesn’t already know, he knows were to look.
All photos courtesy DeSoto Brown Collection