The Anthropology Department houses a diverse collection of archaeological materials recovered from the Hawaiian Islands, as well as over 50 islands and archipelagoes throughout Oceania. The Museum’s Ethnology Collections, once managed alongside the Archaeology Collections, are now administered by the Ethnology Department. Bishop Museum’s archaeology program emerged out of ethnographic and archaeological work conducted in the Hawaiian Islands and elsewhere in Polynesia by Dr. Kenneth Emory, a legendary figure in Pacific archaeology.

The first 50 years of archaeology in Hawai‘i and Polynesia focused primarily on surface surveys and the mapping of above-ground architecture. During the 1950s, however, Dr. Emory broke new ground by excavating at Kuli‘ou‘ou Cave, a rockshelter on the Island of O‘ahu. By uncovering this well-preserved buried archaeological deposit, Emory made clear to archaeologists the value of excavating below the surface in Polynesia, including Hawai‘i, rather than simply focusing on surface finds. Along with the remarkable collection of artifacts recovered from Kuli ‘ou‘ou Cave, subsequent excavations at sites such as Nu‘alolo Kai, on Kaua‘i, and Pu‘u Ali‘i on Hawai‘i Island created a core collection of Hawaiian artifacts that continues to be the subject of academic research projects, even today.