Battleship Missouri enters Pearl Harbor in the mid-'80s, with
the Arizona Memorial to the left. This is the approximate distance
apart the two ships will be if they are placed together
as historical displays.


Weak planning could scuttle
battleship Missouri attraction

Battleship Arizona: Tragic, shattered, a hulk,
an antique even in her day, the flashpoint for America's
entry into the greatest conflict in history.

Battleship Missouri: Heroic, mighty, broad-shouldered
and swaggering, the awe-inspiring apex of warship design,
the place where the war shuddered to a halt.

By Burl Burlingame

Saturday, October 25, 1997

They are the bookends of the war. The idea of pairing them as a museum attraction is staggeringly irresistable -- from the angles of culture, of interpretation, of marketing, of historical significance.

The plans (and there are many afoot) for these ships eventually place them in close proximity to each other in Pearl Harbor. The National Park Service, which oversees interpretation of Arizona, is understandably nervous about commercial encroachment on a dignified national grave site. Missouri's battleship enthusiasts understandably want their ship anchored as close as possible.

Adding fuel to this combustible mix is the Navy's plan to convert part of Ford Island into some kind of historical theme park. The Navy's motives here are murky, because it has never made historical pre-servation a priority. Perhaps Navy officials have had a high-level change of priorities or gotten religion, or sense that there's money in non-combat projects (like the Army's resort in Fort DeRussy). Or maybe it's a way of deflecting criticism while all the other historic structures on Ford Island are demolished in the next few years.

Several private proposals have come forth for museums on Navy property, comfortably near the Arizona Memorial's proven attraction. Whether they smell profits to be made or a singular cultural and educational resource to be shared is beside the point -- there is opportunity here to spare.

And it shouldn't be squandered in poor planning, fuzzy preparation, unrealistic expectations of visitation numbers or costs, or turf wars between cultural venues.

Although they're treated like needy private businesses by the state, museums actually form an integral part of Hawaii's appeal for visitors in addition to their role as educational institutions. According to a report released by the Hawaii Museums Association this week, local museums get about 20 million visits annually, of which 67 percent are tourists, who are typically professional, educated and free-spending.

For every dollar of state funding, museums generate $14.50 in other revenue, of which $4.30 comes from out of state. That means about $101 million in new income. Hard cash. That doesn't include the indefinable marketing cachet that comes from a community with cultural resources.

A battleship is probably the most awkward and troublesome artifact ever transformed into a museum. It's also hideously expensive. Just keeping it afloat and in operable -- not operating -- condition will certainly cost millions of dollars a year.

Keeping the rust scraped and the scuppers painted will require a full-time crew. Like the workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, they would start on one end and steadily work to the other, and it takes all year. And then they start over.

There's also the problem of "interpreting," as professional museum people put it. What is it about battleship Missouri that makes it a singular contribution to history? The ship itself? Its place in modern history? Its starring role in the technical development of warships? Or will the ship simply host a museum devoted to a larger theme, such as the Pacific War?

Then there is the problem of the physical artifact itself. A Navy warship is designed to fight in the open seas. Frills are few. Open space is limited, and most of those spaces were designed to be locked up. This means visitation is likely to be limited, perhaps to the decks, bridge, hangar and a few other areas. You've got to be fairly nimble to access the heart of the ship, the gun turrets, which means it'll be tough on older visitors and near-impossible for the disabled. But you can't change the accesses, because that means damaging the artifact. This is a problem faced by all keepers of historic ships, and it will be exacerbated by Missouri's great size.

Then there is the problem of the public actually getting to the ship. Right now, the Navy is waffling on whether civilians will be able to drive onto Ford Island via the newly built causeway -- built with taxpayer dollars, mind you -- and walk on to the ship. Instead, visitors may have to ride a ferry to the ship. That will mean more millions, what with capital outlay, maintenance, personnel, fuel and insurance.

According to the Park Service, the ferries used to transport visitors to the memorial probably won't be available. Another needless redundancy. On the other hand, there are always the car ferries being retired by the causeway. These leave from a site in between the Memorial Visitor Center and Bowfin Park. The ride on these ferries is pleasant, and the transit time could be used to interpret the harbor itself. The ferries could be converted into a mobile interpretive center, foot traffic only.

And the ferry landing on Ford Island is right at the island movie theater and the old dispensary, both of which would make fine, historic museum buildings. The exact costs of operating these ferries are also available, which means a realistic budget projection can be drawn.

Crowded island

Once people are allowed on Ford Island, a whole new host of problems will surface. How much access will these visitors be allowed? During hydrofest events, visitors essentially have the run of the island, and can marvel at the vernacular buildings and quiet, cultural landscape of the historic airfield. But many of these buildings may be a memory tomorrow -- it's a good bet the Navy is relying on the 1978 historic survey of the island, which, under the general 50-year preservation rule, means that buildings constructed prior to 1928 are the only ones that should be saved, a ludicrous concept -- and Ford Island of tomorrow is due to be developed into a kind of giant military-housing suburb.

The residents of Ford Island aren't going to want visitors wandering through their neighborhood. And, once on Ford Island, these visitors are going to want to see other historic sites such as the USS Utah memorial and the Army gun batteries.

Another problem is that Missouri is only scheduled to remain at Ford Island for a limited time. This makes it difficult for long-range planning. The eventual berth for Missouri is speculative at this point, but it looks like it will be at the new pier for up to three years, and then moved closer to the Arizona Memorial, berthing at the California pier.

Wherever it winds up, it needs to be a place where the public can get at it, and where it will not get in the way of the active-duty Navy. Making that location Ford Island would require far more concessions than the Navy is likely to make, and far more expense than the private sector or the government is willing to foot.

Frankly, it would probably be best to dig a big trench at Aiea landing, pull Missouri in and bury her with dirt up to the waterline. This would simplify both maintenance and access.

This isn't likely to happen. Too expensive. But it would also create a contiguous historic "district" that would tie in Aiea Landing, the recreational boat harbor, Bowfin Park and the Memorial Visitor Center, plus any other museums that might spring up at the site. This will be crucial to the eventual success of the project, as public perception of the area as a cultural attraction has to be clear and unambiguous.

This will be the critical marketing problem for every museum involved at the site, and it will be a huge dilemma.

The solution is to meld these proposals into a single entity, at least in the public eye. This would require control (and responsibility) being taken away from the Navy in some cases, (which would probably be a huge relief to the Navy). Despite its well-considered opposition to the Missouri berthing, the National Park Service may actually be the solution to the problem.

There are a variety of scenarios available. One would be simply relieving the Park Service of responsibility for the Arizona Memorial; in effect, pink-slipping the rangers and bringing in a whole new team.

Enabling legislation

In all other Park Service sites in the United States, "enabling legislation" has been drawn up that specifies exactly why the site needs to be preserved. These documents serve as strict guidelines for interpreting the site, in effect, becoming the default mission statement. But the Arizona Memorial has no such legislation, which in the past has led to disagreements over the site's interpretive scope, simply because there was no cultural blueprint to follow.

The Park Service runs the memorial because the Navy doesn't want to. But without enabling legislation, the rangers can be told to hit the bricks.

That's not a good idea. It would be better to give the Park Service more leverage. The best way to do so is to draw up enabling legislation that clearly defines a portion of Pearl Harbor as a national historical site, which would include the Arizona Memorial, the Visitor Center, Bowfin Park, Missouri, the recreation boating area, Aiea Landing, the car ferry and landings, and a specified zone on Ford Island as a national park. Then transfer control of this zone from the Navy to the National Park Service. It would no longer be Navy property, although the Navy would have full access. It's a lateral property transfer.

The Navy never gives up anything without a fight, so this notion is likely to be unpopular in the Pentagon. And the Park Service is nearly bankrupt; there's no money to properly interpret the Arizona, much less a larger site. Both parties will howl.

Tough. Both the Navy and the National Park Service are creatures of government, and are supposed to follow the law and public policy. This is why legislation on the congressional level is needed.

The expense will be mighty, and the Park Service clearly can't afford it. It would be best to transfer operation of the park to a private nonprofit created expressly for this purpose. The Park Service would then essentially become only a title holder and a professional resource, which is currently well within its capabilities.

Going private

The organization of the managing agency should follow the "park partners" concept currently being used in the Presidio of San Francisco, which, despite a fractious start, is successfully up and running.

There are also crucial financial reasons to create a single managing agency to oversee all museums and cultural attractions at the site, and these are related to the well-tested business concepts of amortization and eliminating redundancy.

Basically, a single management agency would take over day-to-day operations of the various museums, making sure that effort isn't duplicated. A single security force. An inter-related archive and library. A centrally run gift-shop organization with branch outlets in each museum. A larger pool of employees for insurance and health organizations. A single exhibitry fabrication department serving all centers. A single public-relations department. A single education and outreach organization with a cohesive and coherent syllabus.

And so on. Wherever departments can be merged for greater efficiency, they will. This will result in fewer wasted man-hours and fewer redundant employees. This could make the critical difference in the success of the operation, for labor costs are by far the highest single factor in museum operations. Each museum would retain separate curators, directors and boards, and so maintain their individuality. It's the grunt work that needs to be shared.

This isn't a new idea. A task force of museum professionals formed by the Legislature to study the cultural and eco-tourism potential of Barbers Point Naval Air Station recommended such a managing authority in its report. This report is a useful model to follow for any museum complex.

Museums will have to shed their traditional operating systems if they expect to survive in fiscally uncertain times. This is occurring at the same time museums and cultural centers serve a wider spectrum of public needs. Doing more with less.

Museums provide a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing culture. They are the only places where community values and lifestyles are preserved for future generations, a consistent "library of reality" where the physical universe crosses paths with the abstract goals of education.

Whether it's our own children or visitors, the question is whether we want museums to entertain or to educate, or better yet, educate in an entertaining way.

As an article from the American Association of Museums said, "Museums count in ways that can't be quantified. As stewards of our natural and cultural heritage, they preserve the natural and collective human experience. As education institutions, they study and interpret that heritage, and they enlighten and enrich each visitor.

"They stimulate curiosity, increase knowledge, give pleasure. They acquaint us with the unfamiliar and provide new perspectives on the known. Museums continue to be established and audiences continue to grow, because, as institutions, they reflect and speak to the needs of our diverse and democratic society. They also speak to us as individuals, as participants in communities and cultures, as partners in our natural world."

And Museum International observed in an editorial, "Quite apart from its scholarly purpose, the museum is now seen (by the public) in terms of leisure, entertainment, tourism and frequently as a focus of community interest and involvement. Education, once considered a minor museum function, has, with the observation of (our) cultural heritage, become vital..."

Future sticker shock

Traditional sources of museum backing, large philanthropies and the government, are eroding away. Despite the most optimistic projections of the battleship Missouri backers, it's hard to visualize the project being a success as a private business. It will need substantial government support, ranging from pro-active -- which means money, particularly seed money to get the project off the ground -- to benign or passive, such as abeyances of water and sewer fees, or allowing work-release prisoners to do groundskeeping.

Creating a cultural, historical and educational center with battleship Missouri as its primary draw is an exciting idea, one that merits the best -- and most realistic -- planning available. With little money available, the critical question becomes whether we can afford it.

The answer is another question.

How can we afford not to?

Anything less would send a clear message from Hawaii to the world: Education doesn't matter. Culture doesn't matter. Heritage doesn't matter. Future generations, our children, don't matter.

Star-Bulletin reporter Burl Burlingame
is a long-time observer of museum operations and
helped write the Barbers Point plan.

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