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Field Museum, with an extensive but costly collection, faces millions of dollars in cuts

Christopher Philipp manager anthropology collectiField Museum with posts used support homes along north coast PapuNew Guinea.  |  Rich

Christopher Philipp, manager of the anthropology collection at the Field Museum, with posts used to support homes along the north coast of Papua New Guinea. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:18AM



If you really want to see what’s happening in the Field Museum, the top-of-the-line, $30 all-access admission pass isn’t going to cut it.

In the museum but out of public view, more than 12,000 scientists, students and visitors worked with the museum’s research collection in 2012. They studied everything from African coins to bird lice, trying to answer questions about how the world evolved and humanity’s place within it.

It’s these type of scientists and this type of collection that distinguish a natural history museum from all other museums. Now, Chicago’s Field Museum and its collection sit at a crossroads.

“This collection is what differentiates this institution from every university in the world,” said Richard Lariviere, Field Museum president and CEO. “We’re not a university. We’re not a science center. We’re not an entertainment venue. We’re a museum, and these collections contain the information about the world we live in that we’re extracting every day.”

With more than 25 million specimens, the Field Museum has one of the world’s largest and most renowned collections. Maintaining this massive collection comes with a price, though, one the Field Museum can’t sustain. Museum leaders now are grappling with what the museum of the future will look like and what role the collection and research will play in it.

The timing could not be more critical.

“We have an ongoing biodiversity crisis, many species are being lost due to mostly human-induced changes,” said James Hanken, director of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. “At the same time, it’s a tremendously exciting time to be a natural-history museum because the science is so exciting. We’re able to answer a lot of important questions that have defied science for literally hundreds of years. The collections are tremendous, indispensable resources.”

Mission, methods evolving

Natural history museums like the Field hark back to a pre-Internet age, when Indiana Jones-type explorers roamed the Earth, searching for treasures from foreign cultures and different climate zones, loading sacks with exotic animal pelts and plants to study, store and show off in the big city.

These expeditions still happen, pursued with more sensitivity to culture and the environment. Improved scientific tools, like DNA testing, have only broadened the possible scientific advances that can be derived from the collection.

“It’s the age of discovery. It’s still here,” said Christine Niezgoda, the Field Museum’s botany collection manager, who oversees 2.8 million dried plants, seeds and plant-based products ranging from straw hats to centuries-old olive oil. “This is where the age of discovery is happening.”

From its roots in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, the focus at the Field Museum was not only on the visitor experience but also science behind the scenes. The collection consistently grew in the museum’s 120-year history, last year by nearly 200,000 specimens.

This isn’t work for amateurs.

“It takes a lot of expertise to know what you have, to identify it properly,” said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “And if it’s not properly identified, then it might as well be lost. One of the things that distinguishes museums of natural history is they have a particularly large burden of expense associated with creating, maintaining and creating value out of their collections.”

The science done within natural history museums is expensive, Hanken said. “It used to be if you were a scientist in a natural history-museum you would do field work and brought the specimens back, and you needed little more than calipers and a ruler to do your work,” he said. “Now, natural history scientists do many sophisticated molecular analyses with very expensive microscopes. This is expensive work.”

The Field Museum has additional costs related to the collection that other museums don’t have, costs of their own making. In 2001, museum officials decided to time construction of their largest-ever expansion with Soldier Field’s renovation.

Banking on increased attendance that never materialized and overly rosy fund-raising projections, the museum spent $65 million to build the Collections Resource Center, the 186,000-square-foot underground storage facility that opened in 2005 to hold the collection. ​It’s a science fantasyland brimming with specimens and samples, flowers pressed on paper and field jackets holding dinosaur bones still encased in rock.

Now, eight years after the Collections Resource Center’s opening, the museum has $170 million in debt, thanks, in part, to issuing $90 million in bonds in 2002 to pay for the storage as well as to build the east entrance. Of the $90 million, $12 million has been paid. The rest of the debt is from a series of bonds issued between 1985 and 2000.

The museum’s endowment currently stands at $310 million, and the museum is paying about $7 million a year in debt payments. The museum is overspending between $6 million and $12 million on a $70 million operating fund every year, and it can’t afford to continue that way, Lariviere said.

Museum officials cut staff in recent years, but the scientists, who have tenure, largely have not been touched. That will not be the case in the next round of layoffs.

“It’s too early to say how many people, but we will reduce operating expenses by many millions of dollars,” Lariviere said.

The Field Museum wasn’t the only museum hit hard by the recession, which affected cultural institutions large and small. The Field’s problems go beyond that, though.

“I think the Field Museum, in part, their current plight is generic, if you will, to most freestanding museums,” Harvard’s Hanken said. “But on top of that, the Field Museum made some bad choices, and that has really exacerbated the problem.”

The museum can’t throw pieces of the collection away­, tasked with what Lariviere calls a “sacred trust” to preserve items for centuries to come. In some cases, it couldn’t return items to the tribal communities where they came from decades ago — those communities don’t have safe places to preserve their artifacts and would prefer an established museum hold on to them.

But the option is open to sell pieces of the collection, a potentially lucrative prospect fraught with ethical questions, Lariviere said.

Hard to preserve jobs

Within the museum, 16 curators — part of a group of 27 in a total staff of 525 — are considering early-retirement packages. The number of layoffs among the Field’s science staff will depend on how many of those are accepted. In April, museum officials announced a broad internal science staff reorganization.

Part of the broader scientific community has organized a petition asking Lariviere to reconsider planned cuts, saying they “will certainly end up destroying the heart of one of the world’s great museums.” Diminishing the science departments, the petition reads, “is surely a nail in the [museum’s] coffin.”

More than 12,500 have signed the petition, which doesn’t shock Lariviere. A former University of Oregon president, Lariviere is 63 years old and figures he has no more than a decade in the job he started last year. “I spent my career in academia, and the natural response to any budget cut is that it’s the end of the world. None of it particularly surprised me.”

Lariviere said the internal structure of the museum was the “hottest thing going in 1893,” but isn’t working today.

“The museum hasn’t changed in 129 years,” he said.

Within the museum, as the days get closer to the May 10 buyout deadline, those whose jobs are affected worry that long-term science gains could be lost over budgetary issues.

“We’re really concerned,” said one scientist, who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job. “We think the science in the museum is world class and is absolutely worth supporting in the short and long run.”

Harvard’s Hanken said job prospects aren’t great for the specialized scientists leaving.

“Any person midcareer and up at the Field Museum — it’s not impossible but will be very, very hard for them to land a job,” he said. “Academic jobs in our discipline are pretty hard to come by, and universities like to hire junior-level candidates. They cost less, and you’re getting people when they are still fresh.”

Hanken questioned whether the museum would be able to sustain its current level of research by making deep cuts, or attract donors lured by the cutting-edge science.

“The Field Museum is a major player in the global stage on biodiversity research,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine they can sustain that by cutting back.”



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