The Field Museum faces a real threat

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I mostly want to use this forum to discuss new, exciting, and integrative paleontological research, but today I need to discuss something that is threatening new, exciting, and integrative paleontological research. Actually, the threat goes much further beyond that, because it threatens research in other types of zoology, botany, anthropology, and geology as well.

The Field Museum in Chicago, IL, is one of the world’s largest natural history museums. By “largest”, I don’t mean “square footage devoted to exhibits”, although it has a lot of that. I’m talking about its collections of natural history specimens, which for the whole museum currently totals over 25 million specimens. But even if we just stick to paleontology, the Field Museum really is a treasure: over 376,700 fossil plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. It’s an important paleo collection, too, with many rare species and many holotype specimens (the specimens scientists designate as an exemplar when they name a new species). The specimens in the Field Museum collections are researched and augmented by museum curators and their students, but because it is so large and important, the collections really are of global importance. Field Museum specimens are very often studied by other scientists all over the world, who also add new specimens to the collections. This heavy use and constant increase requires specimens to be maintained by a skilled staff of collections managers, preparators, and conservators.

Chicago's natural history treasure chest

A museum of scientific, educational, and cultural importance. CC-BY-SA 3.0 (c) 2011 Joe Ravi, accessed through Wikimedia Commons

Beyond cataloging the diversity of past and present life, Field Museum scientists do a lot of other types of research, which include sorting out the evolutionary and ecological relationships of organisms, exploring the history of the solar system, understanding the effects of climate change, preserving the cultural heritage of many indigenous peoples, and conserving the planet. The scientific mission includes training undergraduate and graduate student researchers, with curators sponsoring students and teaching at three local universities (Northwestern, U of Chicago, and my alma mater, the University of Illinois-Chicago). The scientific and collections staff also does a lot of outreach and education, both in the museum and in Chicago-area schools. This includes a special collection of museum specimens that schools can borrow, to give students hands-on experience with the scientific method.

In short, the Field Museum is an outstanding and important scientific, educational, and cultural institution. You should definitely visit it if you ever travel to Chicago, and you should visit regularly if you live in Chicago.

Tyrannosaurus rex

FMNH PR2081, the Tyrannosaurus rex better known by its nickname, “Sue”. (c) 2005 Shoffman11, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week, the Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, and others reported some highly disturbing news, namely that their forthcoming budget cuts will primarily affect their research and curatorial staff. The Field Museum has a lot of debt, and have already reached the limits of their credit. They have already made a lot of cuts to support staff (janitorial, administrative, etc.), and increased revenue through admissions price changes a few years ago. The current museum president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, and the board of trustees don’t see any way to reduce costs besides narrowing the research scope of the museum, “monetizing” its collections (building new exhibits based on what they have in house already), and eliminating blockbuster travelling exhibits.

Make no mistake, this will have a huge impact on the museum’s ability to do basic science. By cutting  scientists or, equally important, the people who maintain the collections, there will of course be a big and immediate hit to the scientific and educational missions of the museum. This impact is already felt; the Field Museum is under a hiring freeze that has left some collections without a curator in charge of them. And it will be felt further:  Early reports indicate that the museum is looking into whether tenured curators might be let go. Dr. James Hanken, director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, summarized it well in the above Scientific American article: “There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.”

But even if the economy bounces back quickly and no curators are lost, what happens in the interim is bound to have lasting negative effects. Nontenured staff are likely to get hit harder in the short term. Curators and students preserve the collections through research, but the collections staff are the people who preserve the collections physically and facilitate research, at the Field and elsewhere. If the museum “refocuses” its scientific mission to include just a few areas of research, some collections will suffer harder than others: loans not sent out or returned, broken specimens left unrepaired, specimens misplaced or misidentified, delicate specimens left to degrade at improper temperatures or low alcohol concentrations. Research collections cannot be maintained as a research tool by people who do not know what they are doing.

Dessicated frog specimen

Can you fix this frog? I suspect you cannot.               Image (c) 2012 Claire Smith, accessed on her flickr site.

If curators and other collections staff are axed, the specimens face a slow and sad scientific death. Collections can die from lack of physical maintenance (where they become functionally unusable), or they can die from a lack of research maintenance (where they become functionally irrelevant). Both are a danger here.  This is one of the world’s great natural history collections; its scientific importance cannot be overstated. Its collections preserve the cultural heritage of many indigenous peoples, as well as the natural history heritage of all people. It would be a scientific and cultural tragedy to lose it in either the short or the long term.

Finally, on a personal note:

There is no part of my journey to becoming a professional scientist that has not been touched by the Field Museum. As a child, trips to the Field Museum inspired my love of science and sparked my curiosity about life, the Earth, and how they got this way. Part of the reason I am a biologist today is because my parents, grandparents, and teachers brought me to the Field Museum when I was young. As an undergraduate, I took classes from Field curators at UIC and I volunteered in the Geology Department preparing fossils. The hands-on experience working with fossil specimens and with museum scientists made me sure I wanted to pursue scientific research as a career. At that time, friendships and collaborations were formed that still thrive over a decade later. My MS, PhD, and current research include specimens from the Geology and Herpetology collections, and some of my earliest field experience was gained working with Field Museum paleontologists in Montana. I would not be where I am today without the Field Museum; the exhibits inspired me to love science, the curatorial staff encouraged me to do science, and the collections themselves continue to motivate me in both goals.

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

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