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Save the Field Museum!

by Donald Prothero, Jan 02 2013

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


27 Responses to “Save the Field Museum!”

  1. Carl says:

    How will a petition help if they really don’t have the money? Wouldn’t a fund-raising drive be more appropriate?

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Get used to it. Now that the President has “won” his political victory, the U.S. is permanently stuck with a vast and unsustainable load of entitlements. You thought it was only “the military” that would be cut? Everything that doesn’t involve transfer payments to loyal voting blocs is going to get cut to the bone, and then cut some more. (And the President’s “tax the rich” policy means wealthy donors won’t have any spare cash to make up the difference.)

    You wanted Obama, you’ve got him. You own this.

    • Daniel says:

      This isn’t really an Obama or federal government issue, at least from a funding standpoint. I highly doubt the federal government would be involved even if times were good. Despite the fact that the museum is important to some people, it seems like it’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

      And Kudos to Prothero for not blaming this on Republicans and the Koch Brothers.

    • Jen says:

      This has nothing to do with Obama. It has to do with spending, borrowing, the scale and timing of big expansion projects like the Collections Resource Center, specific choices made concerning the endowment, activities/priorities not necessarily in line with the Field’s real mission, etc. that were local and specific to past management. And now new decisions to “fix” this that I strongly disagree with under current management.

    • Jerrold Alpern says:

      It has been the Republicans who have followed the path of “starve the beast” to downsize and eventually eliminate the Federal government altogether, if they get their way. It is they who have not only been totally responsible for the present fiscal crisis but have also been actively hostile to science at all levels and in all its facets. Your aggressive, and utterly false, “you own this” is typical of Republican avoidance of responsibility, not to mention bad manners.

      • Trimegistus says:

        The difference is that Republican policies aren’t locking us into a permanent recession. Ignoring current problems by trying to blame others is the eternal pathology of the Democrats.

      • Daniel says:

        If their ultimate goal is to starve the beast and eliminate the federal government (preposterous on its own terms), they’ve done a pretty awful job at it.

      • Canman says:

        Trimegistus was right the first time. It’s unsustainable entitlements that are starving the beast. Republicans certainly share in the responsibility, but democrats won’t even acknowledge it.

      • MicrotusLover says:

        This is not a “Republican” plot, although it is an example of extremely poor business practices. If you look at the history of the Museum over the last 16 years you will see that when the immediate past president started the museum had $12 million or so in cash in the bank and minimal debt. Over his 15 yrs. at the helm, the museum blew through $12 million and acquired $175 million in debt. He also disdained research and did not educate the board about the importance of the research mission of the museum. He packed the executive committee of the board with non-scientists whom he kept in the dark.

        This discussion should not descend into a political debate, it should focus on the mission of the museum, the need to educate the board, the new president, and the public about the mission of the museum and the serious impact the changes will have on the scientific community.

        The people who will be fired are some of the most active researchers document the effects of climate change. These are the people who provide the data on how many species there are and how many will be lost, they provide the data on how organisms evolve and respond to climate change. It is not about “inventories” of what we already know, the mission of the museum is to “Explore the Earth and Its Peoples”. That mission should never be forgotten.

      • Thinks outside the box says:

        Why is it that you believe that a big federal government is a “good” thing? The federal government is on its way to totally gutting the power of the states. An all powerful government is no different than a dictatorship and is an evil to guard against.

  3. Canman says:

    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?

    Is this really necessary? Could some storage be subcontracted?

    • Jen says:

      The collections aren’t storage–they are artifacts and specimens there to be cataloged (sometimes with lots of metadata), preserved and used. They must be managed by experts, and accessible to resident and visiting scientists to be of use. We don’t collect these things merely to store them, but to actively integrate them into research.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        That’s right–most of the collections are delicate specimens that must be monitored and preserved (like specimens in jars, or fossils that are prone to crumbling apart), and some must even be kept in conditions of controlled temperature and humidity (most skins and pelts and other biological tissues). This is not simply a bunch of crates that you could drag to a storage locker. In addition, the most crucial element is a well-trained collections manager who knows how to preserve and identify and locate the specimens whenever a scientist visits and wants to see them. This kind of knowledge takes years to acquire, and cannot be written up in some manual for a temp employee or subcontractor. The whole idea of a big established museum like the Field Museum is that they are stable and unchanging, so that collections will always be available–and now that assumption is being violated here.

    • MicrotusLover says:

      The plan as described to the employees is to keep the collection managers, but to fire the curators. Collection managers and curators are two different things. While some collection managers do research and collect new specimens, the primary job of a collection manager is to take care of the specimens. The job of the curators is do research. It is the curators who guide scientific inquiry, who get grants, who collect new specimens, who train graduate students. Curators are the equivalent of a university professor. In fact the curators at the Field Museum have tenure; firing them will require revoking tenure from 23 of the 27 curators.

      The administration wants to rid itself of the curators and eliminate academic freedom so that the administration can dictate what the collection managers do in the guise of research.

  4. Chris Howard says:

    I hope this doesn’t happen. I’m planning on moving to Illinois in a few years, (leave the Red State Hell that is Texas) and I really wanted to visit the Field.

    Hopefully this will be resolved before then!

  5. Gary Hurd says:

    The failure of Museum trustees to recognize that without the science staff all they have is a building filled with junk. Attractive junk, but useless.

  6. James Ethridge says:

    If the Museum is to grow a scientific staff is absolutely necessary. Knowledge stored and maintained with out teachers to reveal this information also makes an institution useless.

    I have been attempting to donate materials to the Museum but it seems to land on deaf ears. Now I know why.

  7. JohnI says:

    Sadly this is not unique. This is happening quietly in Museums all across the country – science, art and historical museums.

    There’s huge pressure for governments at all levels to reduce funding to museums and cultural institutions. Meanwhile the economy is bad to people don’t want to make private donations, corporate donations are hard to get (and often have strings attached) and to boot income from ticket/admission sales are down too.

    Unless there’s some kind of huge groundswell of support – not just for this museum but *all* museums – this is just the beginning of a death spiral for these institutions.

    • MicrotusLover says:

      The Field Museum is a private institution. The financial problems it is facing have nothing to do with declining support from the government. The financial problems are directly tied to the choices of the administration.

  8. highnumber says:

    At the link Jerry Coyne says over his 25 years living in Chicago he has “watched the Field Museum’s public exhibits degenerate from an educational experience to an entertainment experience.” Since I grew up here in Chicago and have a family membership at the museum, I am qualified to say that he’s really wrong about the Field. Take for example one of the older exhibits still on display, the Plains Collection. It’s just glass case after glass case filled with clothes and artifacts with notecards offering two or three word descriptions of each item, maybe a year of origin. Then take the newer Evolving Planet exhibit, a multimedia experience that takes the visitor through time from a lifeless Earth through mass extinctions, from single-celled life to modern humans with displays along the way to explain the principles of natural selection. It’s my favorite (science) museum exhibit anywhere. I have no problem myself with, say, the 3D movie theater next door to the Evolving Planet though I can understand why someone could complain that it was more for entertainment than education (I don’t disagree with that assessment but would point out that museums need to have some of both), but it’s wrong to assert that the newer exhibits aren’t more educational than the figuratively dry and literally dusty glass cases of the Field of my youth.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      That was something that always amazed me about the Field Museum–the huge area devoted to the glass cases full of taxidermied specimens! Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and many others, just standing in glass cases, not set into dioramas like the American Museum, L.A. County Museum, and others have. Those are TRUE antique exhibits–collectors’ cabinet style of exhibits from over a century ago. Yes, they have updated many of the other halls, but those are still as they have been since the beginning. Only Harvard’s Museum of Comparative ZOology has something similar. And in many cases, they’ve done VERY well with updated exhibits. The dino halls and fossil mammals halls are all redone, with skeletons and very few bells and whistles, but still the displays are not dull or static, and the signage and information content excellent!

  9. Elizabeth Tice says:

    It is to society’s detriment that the blame cannot be properly placed with just consequences. Fire the people at the top who made the grave errors, thereby cutting back on very large salaries and benefits.
    Let the drivers of the calamity experience what their mismanagement has wrought; let them go on the unemployment line. They made the serious mistakes and they should be allowed to pay the consequences.
    To have the professional staff dismissed is a devastating move that will reverberate for years to come and the rest of us will suffer; as a teacher, I can not emphasize enough the importance of maintaining the staff who excell at scientific research. How are our children to properly learn without the appropriate scholarship?

  10. Jim Price says:

    A huge part of the problem can be found in the very last sentence of your article. Have you done any background research on Richard Lariviere? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his presence coincides with troubles at the museum.

    Lariviere had a short tenure as the president of the University of Oregon. He was fired when it became apparent to everyone that he was not a team player. His only interest is Richard Lariviere. If you do a search using his name followed by Oregon you will find enough material to fill an entire day’s worth of reading.

    Here is just one quote from one article, and it pretty much puts it in a nutshell. “Some elected leaders have characterized Mr. Lariviere’s style as aloof and arrogant. They describe his failures to cooperate, most recently by granting staff and faculty raises after being told by the state’s governor to hold the line on salaries.” And they weren’t just piddling little raises. He granted raises that would have been absolutely ludicrous during good times, and did it during a serious budget crisis.

    He was constantly at odds with the State Board of Higher Education and apparently felt it was beneath his ivory tower status to attend the meetings, many of which he just skipped. It apparently escaped his grasp that the Board was his employer. His entire tenure seemed to focus on ingratiating himself to staff and students at the UO, and setting up the UO to be his personal kingdom; or rather dictatorship.

    We had the good sense to give him the boot here in Oregon, and the Field Museum made the poor choice to hire him. They are now paying the price. I hope they survive his tenure. Step number one would be to get rid of Richard Lariviere.

  11. d brown says:

    Fire the ones who made the mess first. The only entitlements big enough to matter are Social Security and defense. The only treason the country is in bad shape is that as David Stockman said after he cut taxes, is the the Right wants to do away with anything after 1930. Its working. Stockman confessed cheerfully conceded that the administration’s own budget numbers … did not add up…. “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” Stockman confessed.
    If the new administration would not cut defense or Social Security… that Reagan had put off limits, then it must savage the smaller slice remaining. Otherwise, balancing the budget in 1984 became an empty promise…. [Stockman] had to begin educating “the West Wing guys.”…”A month ago, they didn’t. They really thought you could find $144 billion worth of waste, fraud, and abuse. True believers still think so.

  12. d brown says:

    Its on topic,at least about why there is no money. I started out with Medicare and you are right, it is not an entitlement. But Stockman said defense and I did not rewrite far enough. Sorry.

  13. Ed Landing says:

    As a 30+ year museum curator, the Field Museum’s destruction is only part of a pattern as society changes its focus and as the articulate proponents of the reasons for cultural and natural history understanding are no longer listened to. What is more important to the “everyman”–reality shows with the Kardashians; living in the non-analog world of tweets, Facebook, and personal social awareness, and pouring over half the world’s total military budget into a U.S. military that loses everytime the designated “enemy” wears flip-flop sandals and uses a Kalashnikov. This is no Republican or Democrat issue–as Obama sits down and actually plots drone strikes with the same enthsiasm as “W” liked his “shock and awe” (which really didn’t “shock and awe” the Iraqi nationalists).

    The U.S. military parked tanks on and filled defensive sandbags from the ruins of Ur, Rumsfeld said “things happen” when the Badhdad museum was looted, the Taliban blew up the Bamian Buddhas, and the Syrian army and “rebels” devastated the ancient core of Alleppo.

    Museums and what they do are “over,” sadly. We only want entertainment, and our brains “hurt” if presented with anything other than entertainment. Museums were a vital symbol of intellectial prowess beginning with the end of the Middle Ages, of the utility of science in searching for coal and later oil, a measure of success in the cold-war as science became a way to demonstrate one-upmanship.

    With Obama putting in budgets that cut NASA 40%, NSF grant success in natural sciences down to 7%, the Republicans obviously loving a place like the Congo to live in (remember, low taxes and small government!!), and evolution no longer a sort of analog to traditional capitalism (mutation=innovation, natural selection and reproductive success=business competition and economic growth) when economic change is uncontrollable and comes from outside (like biblical plagues), what hope is there for museums and American science? The “winds of heaven” have switched to China–which is now building the largest natural history museum in the world in Shanghai.

    There is nothing coherent left. Did we hear Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, speaking up for the most famous museum in the midwest, and which even has the tyrannosaur Sue mounted right in the Chicago international airport? Do we see the computer company czars donating to natural history museums? (no, they only “get” health issues or technology). Or how about the czars Buffet or the heads of the major banks? (no, they don’t get “analog”).

    There will only be the firing/non-replacement of curators, and then the collection managers get outsourced.