The full, never-before printed interview:

What I’m Reading | Tim Johns
President, Director and CEO of Bishop Museum

Q&A with Christine Thomas
February 2008

-What are you reading?

The two that I’m working on right now are related to my new position at the Bishop Museum. The first is a recent Bishop Museum press release of “Kepelino’s Traditions of Hawaii” by Martha Beckwith. Kepelino was one of the important native Hawaiian historians from the mid-19th century and recording stories and culture and knowledge in the original Hawaiian voice. It’s neat to read it in a more recent translation that conveys the context of what was happening at the time that he recorded that.

The other that I’m reading is “The Future of Life” by Edward O. Wilson, a leading thinker and biologist. His book is an important examination of the vulnerability of global biodiversity. It’s not all doom and gloom—he develops a strategy for preserving biodiversity but at the same time raising the standard of living in our developing countries. It’s an effective strategy taking into account both those issues.

And there are a few I always carry around in my backpack to read on planes and such. One is the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu, and I always have a Calvin and Hobbes collection. That’s how I get my philosophical grounding.

-You learned about Kepelino’s book from the museum, but how did you discover Wilson’s book?

I’ve been involved in conservation in Hawai`i for a long time. It was given to be me by my friend Judge Wilson who got it from Carl Pope, the head of the national Sierra Club. He gave it to me about a year ago and I was carrying it around and finally picked it up and then just couldn’t put it down.

-What stands out about Wilson’s and Kepelino’s books?

The thing I like about [The Future of Life] is it’s one of those books that’s able to take a very complex subject and walk through it logically so when you finish the book you have a very good understanding of what biodiversity is, why it’s important, what can be done to preserve it, and why we should do that. … What stands out to me about Kepelino is it’s written in the original voice and not interpreted by later historians, whether western or native Hawaiian. You go back to the source material which I learned when I studied history as an undergrad—it’s always better to go back to the source. He is an example of that.

-Do they inform your thinking about how to help the voices of the past be heard while also envisioning the Museum’s future?

The museum is the official museum of cultural and natural history, so obviously the native Hawaiians knew that went hand in hand. That’s what’s interesting about working here—you get some western scientific overlay but have the obligation to maintain and preserve the culture as well. Reading these books at the same time exercises the different sides of my brain. It gets me thinking about Kepelino and native Hawaiians at that time, how they viewed conservation and biodiversity and how humans interacted with the natural environment and vice versa, and then connecting that with reading a western-trained scientist talk about the same things from a different perspective is very interesting.