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FailureShip: The Sad Story of the Bishop Museum and the Slow Death of a National Historic Landmark

Falls of Clyde by Christopher Pala for The NY Times The Sunday New York Times published a sad story by Christopher Pala about the uncertain future of the Hawaiian Tall Ship, The Falls of Clyde, a National Historic Landmark since 1989. (Historic Ship Stays Afloat. for Now – October 19, 2008)

What is particularly troubling about this story is the mismanagement and lack of leadership exercised by the Bishop Museum’s board in their stewardship of this historically significant asset and for which they collected considerable public funding and private donations over the years.  The ship has recently been “sold” for a symbolic $1 to a group of well meaning but grossly underfunded supporters. After years of neglect by the Bishop Museum, The Falls of Clyde now requires millions of dollars for rehabilitation and restoration work, a daunting task for a new nonprofit.

The Falls of Clyde story is not a simple one. Her history as represented in the Statement of significance in the National Historic Landmark Study on the National Park Services’ website:

The 1878 ship Falls of Clyde is the world’s only surviving four-masted full-rigged ship. Built in Great Britain in the last quarter of the 19th century during a shipbuilding boom inspired in part by increased trade with the United States, Falls of Clyde made several voyages to American ports, notably San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, while under the British flag. Sold to American owners in 1898, Falls of Clyde gained American registry by a special act of Congress in 1900. Henceforth she was involved in the nationally important Hawaiian transpacific sugar trade for Capt. William Matson’s Matson Navigation Co., a shipping firm of international scope and significance that continues in business. Falls of Clyde, ninth vessel acquired by Matson, is the oldest surviving member of the Matson fleet. After 1907, Falls of Clyde entered another nationally significant maritime trade, transporting petroleum as a sailing oil tanker. Specifically modified for the petroleum trade as a bulk cargo carrier, Falls of Clyde retains integrity of design, materials, and workmanship, and is of exceptional national significance as the oldest surviving American tanker and as the only surviving sailing oil tanker left afloat not only in the United States but also in the world.

Pala writes in the NY Times article:

In 1963, as she was about to be sunk to serve as a breakwater, another group of enthusiasts in Hawaii had her towed back to Honolulu and, over the next two decades, almost fully restored.

In 1984, a new maritime museum, the Hawaii Maritime center, acquired the Falls, which was docked next door, but the center foundered financially. In 1994, the Bishop Museum reluctantly took over the center and the ship. One of the Falls’s chief supporters, Robert Pfeiffer, then the chief executive of the company that owns today’s Matson Navigation Company, set up a half-million-dollar endowment for the care of the Falls.

But over the next 14 years, the Bishop Museum spent little more than the endowment’s annual income of about $50,000 on the ship, according to a former museum official who would not be identified because he did not want to appear critical of the Bishop’s present management.

Though it is customary to place a ship in dry dock every five years to inspect and repair the hull, the museum did not do so with the Falls of Clyde, which was last in dry dock in 1987. Nor did it install zinc anodes, at a cost of a few thousand dollars a year, which would have prevented the hull from decaying.

In 2001, Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat, announced a Congressional earmark of $300,000 to preserve the Falls, and Mr. Pfeiffer, who died in 2003, contributed a personal matching grant of $300,000.

Nonprofit cultural institutions, like the Bishop Museum, have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to their communities and supporters to act competently as stewards of treasures in their care.  While there have been a number of cases over the years where museums have been criticized for selling or deaccessioning works in their collections for various reasons, it’s difficult to recall many that show the alleged incompetence at this scale in preserving a nationally significant treasure.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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