Joint post: Chicago’s Field Museum endangered by unwise budget cuts

December 27, 2012 • 5:31 am

I’ve lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, and have watched the Field Museum’s public exhibits degenerate from an educational experience to an entertainment experience. This isn’t unique to that museum: it’s happening everywhere as natural history museums seek to make more money by displaying dinosaur skeletons and offering ‘hands-on’ experiences and animated exhibits for  kids weaned on video games.

The mantra here is “user friendly.” And I deplore this trend.  And I deplore this trend.  Steve Gould wrote an essay on this topic, also bemoaning the dumbing-down of museums (see also Gould’s essay in Natural History, January 1994, and here and here on WEIT for moar):

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell many scientifically worthless, and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admissions charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects (the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation). If you ask my colleagues in museum administration why they have permitted such incursions into their precious and limited spaces, they will reply that these robotic displays bring large crowds into the museum, mostly of people who otherwise would never come. These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost. I cannot fault the logic of this argument, but I fear that my colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums. If the glitzy displays were dispersed among teaching exhibits, if they were used as a springboard for educational programs (sometimes they are), then a proper balance of mammon and learning might be reached. But, too often, the glitz occupies a separate wing (where the higher admission charges can be monitored), and the real result gets measured in increased body counts and profits.

Well, perhaps fiscal constraints mandate such changes. But what is more serious for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is that budget cuts are now about to seriously degrade its scientific mission, eliminating much of the behind-the-scenes research that is the soul of any good natural history museum. Public exhibits are merely the frosting on the cake, for not visible to casual visitor are the research collections and laboratories of the scientists that lie behind closed doors.

Museum-based research has been essential in studies of ecology, evolution, and natural history, and this kind of downsizing is a serious danger to work on organismal biology.  Alarmed, Greg Mayer and I co-wrote the following plea for the Field Museum to reconsider its rash decision. And we’re asking readers to help by writing a brief protest.


Field Museum: Don’t savage your science!

by Jerry Coyne and Greg Mayer

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Field Museum of Natural History is about to engage in a budget-slashing reorganization that will all but eliminate science at that institution (our emphasis added):

Staff reductions would be aimed at curators and scientists, according to museum officials.

“This may turn out to involve shrinking certain areas of inquiry,” said John Rowe, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.

The Field Museum is both an international research institution and a vital cultural attraction for residents and tourists, drawing about 1.3 million visitors in 2011.

The natural history museum is home to Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world and a Chicago icon. In the bowels of the museum and all around the world, Field scientists also are discovering new plants and animals—more than 200 last year alone—along with preserving rain forests and studying artifacts. …

[New Museum President Richard] Lariviere, who started in October, said he wants to use the cost-cutting measures as an opportunity to refocus the museum’s mission. …

Museum officials said they also expect to cut research staff as they seek to narrow the scope of its mission

Currently the museum is organized much like a university, with researchers divided into academic departments. Under Lariviere’s plan, that structure would be simplified into four broad areas: science and education, programming, fundraising and operations.

“Narrowing the scope of its mission” apparently means “deep-sixing most of the science.”

Lariviere, dismissed last year as president of the University of Oregon, said the Field’s future is “rosy” if they carry out this plan out, but in reality its future would be bleak indeed.

There are only a handful of great natural history museums in the U.S., and the Field is one of them. (Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where both of us received our doctorates, is another.) These museums have always had a dual mission of research and education, and in fact the research mission has usually occupied the lion’s share of the museums’ efforts. The public doesn’t realize that the research collections of the Field Museum hold a vastly greater number of specimens than those on public display.

Indeed, the Field Museum—like many others of its kind—uses “behind-the-scenes” access to its collections and its scientists as principal attractions for members and donors. It is these collections that scientists, both in-house and from other institutions, use to advance biology, geology, and anthropology. What are to become of these tremendously important, and literally irreplaceable, collections?

The research of natural history museums has been crucial for the development of evolutionary biology. Ernst Mayr, the “Darwin of the 20th century” who pioneered studies of speciation, did so at natural history museums (successively, the British Museum, American Museum, and Museum of Comparative Zoology), using the collections to formulate and test his ideas. The Field’s scientists continue this tradition, and have been enormously productive.

Jim Hanken, Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, had this to say to Nature and Scientific American:

It’s one of the great research institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centres of research for more than 100 years. There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.

As the Chicago Sun-Times noted, the Field is a “treasure [and] a responsibility”, and the current management can’t be allowed to savage what must be a resource for future generations. There’s a petition to oppose this:

and you can contact the management through info here (Dr. Lariviere’s email address is ; remember-be respectful!) and Board Chair John Rowe and other Board members through info here (no emails; postal address is The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496.) We ask readers to do this, and let the Museum and its Board know that you support science. Outcry by the scientific community and public can work— it saved the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center a decade ago from a similarly ill-advised cost-saving refocusing of mission.

If you are in favor of research in organismal biology (and I hope that most of our readers are!), we ask you to sign the petition (which takes all of one minute) and write a short note to the management opposing these changes.


h/t: Matthew Cobb

32 thoughts on “Joint post: Chicago’s Field Museum endangered by unwise budget cuts

    1. So did I.

      I grew up in the Chicago area. I used to think they were called “field trips” because they usually went to the Field Museum.

      1. Where I live, I don’t think there is a field museum but we have centres for primate and elephant research and the largest collection of human fossils in the world I guess.

  1. Here where I live, the Milwaukee Public Museum was also once a research institution. It is a crime how it was allowed to slowly atrophy. I had hoped that an institution as great as the Field Museum would not suffer such a fate.

    1. gbjames, I also lived in Milwaukee during my childhood. I spent hours in their exhibits every visit. They had a rain forest exhibit as well, and a tropical greenhouse with live tropical butterflies. They had a “trading post” where little kids like me could submit neat geological or natural history specimens that they found, in return for fake money that could buy specimens that other kids had found. But they also supported famous tropical researchers (Alan Young, and later Phil DeVries) and promoted tropical conservation in Costa Rica.
      Nowadays natural history fieldwork is heading to extinction even faster than the biomes that field workers study. There is so little support for taxonomic studies that most groups of smaller organisms don’t even have a living expert studying them.
      Ironically this is the Second Age of Discovery, as new roads give access to unexplored mountains and valleys, particularly in the tropics. These roads eventually bring destruction, but there is a brief moment of opportunity to discover and study the things that live there, before they disappear. In Ecuador botanists are discovering hundreds of new species of orchids every year. If our civilization was sane, it would be sending out armies of biologists to such places. Other planets, as exciting as they are, can wait. They aren’t going anywhere. But this generation is the last that will have a chance to catalog the life that is present on Earth itself. Museums and field scientists should be getting some of the funding that presently goes to space exploration, if there is only a fixed amount of money in the “science pot”. Or better, rather than diminishing another science, the US should just buy one or two less aircraft carriers and a few less $100 M jet fighters or $1000M stealth bombers, and distribute the money saved to museums and field biologists….
      What are the chances of that happening….

      1. A major culprit in the slow decline in public institutions is, IMO, the decades-long drumbeat of the political right, demanding ever lower public funding and offering illusory “public/private partnerships”. One of these “partnerships” is responsible for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s sorry state. It is a tragedy.

  2. Off topic I know, but considering Vancouver, B.C. is the largest city in B.C. and one of the larger cities in Canada, I’m surprised by its lack of museums.

    There is a Museum of Anthropology at UBC, and a small Maritime Museum downtown, but that is really about it. They have an Art ‘Gallery’ downtown, and Science World (more of a tourist attraction than a museum).

    In comparison I grew up in Ottawa, which despite being a small city has multiple large museums including the Museum of Civilization, Museum of Natural Sciences, Science & Technology Museum, War Museum, National Art Gallery, etc.

    Any suggestions on how to improve things in Vancouver?

    1. Point out to the ‘powers-that-be’ that Victoria, BC , has a first-rate institute, albeit devoted in large measure to First Nations. Pride of Place, and all that.

  3. “(Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, […] both of us received our doctorates, is another.)”

    There’s no “where” there…

    Signed the petition several days ago. The FMNH cancelled some positions it had already advertised in 2008 as the GFC started to bite, but I hope they can get research back on track in time for the next generation.

  4. Petition signed with comments. 1976 first time I was allowed to take the train into the city by myself to go to the Field museum, Shedd aquarium and Adler planetarium. The 1977 king Tut exhibit is still etched in my mind.

  5. My colleagues and I, who have some type specimens borrowed from the Field Museum right now, will send e-mails to the people you recommend. I’ll also try to rouse my large family; every couple years our family traveled to Chicago to visit the museums and the aquarium. — Barbara

  6. My 1st excursion to the Field Museum was with my father, who was in his PHD program at the University of Chicago. I was about 5 or 6 years old. My father said that I was so excited, darting from exhibit to exhibit that I made my self sick and threw up on the museum floor.

    Since then, although I’ve moved far away, I made it to the Field for Tut, and for Sue, with my own children.

    Signed the petition too.

  7. This is a wonderful thing for you to do. Does the new director not look at the exhibits and see how many are inspired by the research that goes on there ?

    Did you see that this post is linked to the petition page? Nice Job!

  8. I disagree with Mr. Cobb’s claim that learning and entertainment are not compatible. The old style museums of the past may have been good for research but they were not effective for teaching children. It is true however, that an exhibit designed for children often overlooks adult needs. Offering two exhibits, one for adults and one for children is not cost effective, so museum curators must design wisely.

    1. Did you read the post? Cobb was the “h/t”, who alerted us to the article. He didn’t make ANY claim.

      And what’s your evidence that “old style” museums were not effective for teaching children? If adults are along, and help explain, they are wonderfully effective. How many of us (including Greg, myself, Steve Gould, and many others) got their start in science from marvelling at the stuff in museums.

      The entertainment is there for one reason alone: to help the museums make money. It is completely feasible to have educational exhibits that inspire both adults and children. The Darwin exhibit at the Field Museum (on tour, and now gone) was one of these.

      It’s all about money, not education. What “education” is served by showing children Jacqueline Kennedy’s dresses?

      1. It has to be “about money” to some degree since museums need admissions fees and all the other funds they can muster. Educational exhibits that don’t attract an audience are ineffective and will lead to the extinction of museums.

        I personally love old-school museum reconstructions and dioramas, but that kind of exhibit can’t sustain an institution today. Gould’s criticism of what’s offered in museum gift shops demonstrates an idealism that was out of touch with reality when written. It’s even more out of touch today.

        I fiercely believe that the great museums must have active research and collections to be vital and worthy of support. But a modern museum must find new ways to make the research, collections and education missions economically viable. Pissing and moaning about educational merits of specific exhibits doesn’t address the real economic issues here. I’d like to see thoughtful options to cutting research from the creative scientific minds here.

        The Field Museum’s economic hole is dug. We need to provide realistic alternatives to cutting the science budget.

  9. Just signed it. I couldn’t agree more. I had the privilege of working many years in one of the great natural history museums on the East Coast, first as a volunteer while in college, later on staff, and most recently as a post-doc. What the public experiences when visiting these museums is only the tip of the iceberg, and many are unfortunately unaware of the incredible amount of work and research that goes on within those walls, of the important research resources well-managed museum collections offer, and of the significant role museums have in fostering active research in the field. I learned to greatly respect curators and staff for their dedication, and watched with dismay the never-ending attempts by administrators to cut funding and positions in research, ignoring the fact that the latter represents the very soul and raison d’être of these great institutions. This is an important petition. Please sign it everybody.

  10. [Signed the petition, wrote a short note to the management.]

    I am reasonably sure this is a stop gap measure.

    The deterioration of museums is a long term process, and as all social processes it offers a pathway of hope: new media complements old. We still talk, we still phone and we will still go to real life museums as virtual 3D museums open up on the web.

    If universities can weather the change, as publicists now tries to cope with web publication of science, it will engender a lot of benefits. You can assess 3D and even microtome fossils from all over at the web, and more importantly you don’t need or wear replicas. A rights management system would give universities micro-pay income all year round at no extra personnel cost. And all the investments would go to the synergy of characterizing the fossils, if so still encapsulated in sediments, for science, education and the public thrice.

    I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects (the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation).

    I can get behind Gould’s analysis on the point of missing the measuring of the actual outcome of policy changes.

    But this looks iffy to me. I haven’t kept up with the advances, but isn’t Gould’s analysis erroneous at this point? I assumed that the findings of early dinosaur feathers would mean much the same constraints on possible pigmentation as they do elsewhere.

    Maybe there are other traits that are far less observable at this point.

    1. That what is a stopgap measure, the cuts or the petition to stop them? The Bishop Museum in Honolulu has undergone a similar decline, from being the preeminent focus of Pacific islands research in the 1970’s to the point where there are effectively no researchers left on staff and the collections are stagnant.

      This is part of a general trend of museum directors treating their organizations strictly as a business, not merely in terms of balancing the bottom line but in their approach to management. I don’t think it will change until we get directors who understand the value of science as foundational to the mission of the museum.

  11. I read this and I keep remembering this post at the Observer, a few years ago, and how this might be exactly what is going on in the administrator´s heads.
    America seems to keep needing a competitor, some other nation to fear (a vacuum left by the Soviets) in order to value science. Not news, doing the right thing for the wrong, a tradition.

  12. Can you correct calling the Natural History Museum the ‘British Museum’ in the link text?

    They’re different museums. You might try to mean the ‘National History Museum that isn’t American but British’ but it isn’t called British Museum.

    Both are ab fab museums, by the way.

  13. My father did Maya archaeology for the Field. I did my first field work with Martin & Rinaldo, got curatorial experience there one summer, and did my first Andean archaeology with Don Collier, part of which work resulted in my dissertation. I have taken graduate seminars to the Field to get “hands on” experience with their Andean collections. I, my students, and many others have profited greatly from the collections and the research of the Field. It would be a terrible loss to see them curtailed in any way.

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