Buried in all the news of the end of the world, the “fiscal cliff”, and the holiday season was another item that probably escaped most people’s attention. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the world’s foremost natural history museums, is planning huge cutbacks in their scientific staff in the next few weeks. Details of who will be cut are sketchy, but the news raced through my professional community and made us all very upset. This is not only because many people who are our personal friends will be losing their jobs because of mismanagement at the top, but also because such a disastrous move would hurt science in many ways that the general public may not appreciate.
First, some background. The Field Museum was founded in 1893 after the Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of that year ended, and named because of a large endowment from retail mogul Marshall Field (whose stores were a landmark in Chicago until bought out by Macy’s in 2005). It is one of the world’s largest natural history museums, with not only spectacular exhibit halls of dinosaurs and modern animals and gems and minerals and everything else (such as the famous “Lions of Tsavo” and “Tyrannosaurus Sue”), but even larger research collections—almost 400,000 fossil specimens alone! It seemed that such a longstanding landmark would never have trouble, but those of us who have worked in private museums know they are always scrambling for a buck to match their costs, and they are constantly staging fundraisers and schmoozing rich donors with gala events to keep the money coming. A few years ago they seemed to be on top of the world with the coup of acquiring (thanks to huge donations from McDonalds, Disney, and other corporations, not their own money) the famous tyrannosaur “Sue” (now featured in their main hall). But their CEO and trustees apparently made some risky investments, and gambled their endowment on financial instruments that got clobbered in the recession, and now they’re hurting for money. Thanks to the bad decisions of investors, everyone else will suffer (shades of the financial meltdown of 2008). They’ve already cut a lot of other expenses to the bone, fired a lot of the less-skilled support staff, and canceled expensive traveling exhibits. Now they’re about to cut their own hearts out and destroy the staff that makes the museum run in the first place.
Most people think a museum is just a bunch of exhibits of fossils or art on display, but don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes. As Jerry Coyne also points out in his post, a top museum like the Field is also one of the most important research institutions in the country, with curators who are among the top scientists in their area of research. Just like university research professors, these curators must pursue research grants and find funding to do important scientific projects. Unlike most university research scientists (who don’t have a place to store too many specimens if they find them), museum curators tend to focus on research that recovers new specimens, and adds to the total resource base for scientific research. Without this material, our data base for research and understanding topics in the fossil record would dry up, because there is no else out there to perform such an important role. I’ve known nearly all the vertebrate paleontology curators at the Field Museum (both past and present) for many years, and most are among the sharpest minds in our field, doing essential science that few others could perform.
Then there are the other support staff—collections managers, preparators, illustrators, and many others—who make the whole research operation run. Without preparators (who are hard to find since they require a lot of training yet are paid poorly), the fossils covered in matrix and plaster jackets will never be studied. Without a skilled collections manager, the research collections soon fall apart from neglect and lack of care, specimens crumble or get lost or are misplaced, and they become impossible for anyone to use. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in their collections, studying fossils and even borrowing a few, and many have ended up illustrated in my publications. If these people are let go, the collections will quickly deteriorate and much of their scientific value will be lost, and no rehiring of new people a few years down the line will recoup this loss. Once key people who have years of experience are let go, their institutional memory is lost permanently, and no new trainee hired years later can recover this information.
The Field Museum includes not only important specimens of nearly everything, but many that are type specimens of species or genera. These are required by the codes of science to be kept in a research institution and preserved so they can be easily studied by other scientists. If the collections managers are gone, who will maintain type specimens?
Many of the specimens in collections like this one were obtained with permits which require that they be deposited in a repository for permanent preservation. If the collections are allowed to deteriorate, has the Field Museum breached its contract with the Federal agencies who manage the land from which the specimens came?
Not only is this decision a tragedy for science, but it affects many other things as well. The Field Museum serves as a major educational institution for people all around Chicago, with numerous outreach classes, educational programs, and the Field Museum curators also help teach at places like the University of Chicago. What will happen to these important efforts if there is no longer any staff to run them, or any scientific expertise to supervise them?
If the Field Museum cuts nearly every employee they have, they are just another sideshow exhibit for tourists, with no scientific understanding to back them up. They would be no more than many of these “museums” that a number of cities have built completely out of fossil replicas bought from commercial dealers, with no real fossils, no research, and no expertise to tell them what to write on their labels.
As my friend Sarah Werning writes in her post, science at the Field Museum is facing a real threat. If you have not signed this petition, please take a minute to do so. Please also take a few more minutes to write to the President and CEO of the Field Museum, Richard Lariviere, who can be reached at:
The Field Museum
1400 South Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605