When I first read the Chicago Tribune article about the Field Museum of Natural History (the Field) cutting scientists, curators and scientific research, my first thought was, roughly, that I had not just signed up to be a member of this museum for the leadership to turn around and gut the place.
Yeah, I was pissed.
Later, I was saddened, and worried for some people I know personally who will be impacted, directly or indirectly, by this choice. I spent some time thinking about the impact the Field’s scientists and scientific programs have had on my scientific development and got a bit mopey. Then I got to thinking about how the Field figures prominently into my future plans for my beloved nieces and nephews…
I’m back to pissed. With a side of sad, sure. But pissed. Because I want to share with them the glorious Field that I know. That I love. That I’ve worked with. That important people to me still work at. And, most of all, that is world-class scientific institution.
Science IS our part of our human heritage. Almost everyone uses some semi-scientific approaches to life, even without realizing it. It’s places like the Field, which codify and support deliberate scientific inquiry, that expand our human horizons and house these parts of our heritage. They become, in effect, a wonderful part of our heritage themselves.
And the leadership of the Field is strongly considering excising the keepers and the inquirers.
Bruce Patterson, the museum’s curator of mammals (and my former advisor), wrote a post back in 2011 about how very good the Field is at science. It very clearly indicates what’s at risk, on the science side, if the planned changes occur. From there, I find it easy to consider how the education side will suffer. For example, if they reduce how many people they have on staff to maintain their collections, how well will they be able to maintain them, long-term? Won’t that make it pretty hard for “the museum [to] rely more on its own collection”?
The Field is in substantial crisis. As a result, a huge piece of the cultural heritage of Chicago—and the world—is being threatened in the attempt to save it. I’m honestly not sure what got them into this state (though this Slate article about fossil purchases by Brian Switek sheds some sad light), but I believe this is not the way out of it. To a degree, I can see why this seems, on the surface, to be reasonable. It IS hard to see how a museum can be sustainable, long-term, with a debt load that is more than half its endowment. It’s believable that the museum simply cannot continue conducting business as it has. I can believe that something’s got to give. But I am not convinced that, long-term, reducing scientists, curators, collections staff, and scientific exploration will do anything more than suck the Field into a self-destructive cycle of less and less relevance.
My opinion is not a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, either. Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center has addressed this crisis in the artworld.1 Other thinking and solutions exist that would allow the Field to move through its budget crisis and into the future stronger and still committed to scientific inquiry and research. And, as a member and former graduate student/volunteer, I’m pretty invested in seeing them get out of it correctly and better off.
Thus, I’m doing three things. First, I’m voicing my request, along with so many others, that the museum look for another way to make up the budget shortfall. Second, I’m writing this post. I’m asking you to help too. Sign that petition too, and consider if there’s anything else you can do to help.
Finally, and most importantly, I’m quite literally putting my money where my mouth is (fingers are?) and making a donation. Bill and I already have a family Field Museum membership, which is a start. But last night we found an amount of money we can donate. We don’t have a spare $170 million lying around, so on some level it’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s also a commitment to help out if they stop digging now that the Field has found itself in a hole.
A petition, a letter, a blog post, anything similar? They can only go so far. As I said, I understand that broke is broke. Maybe, just maybe, though? With enough voices asking the museum to rethink this course, and enough people putting money in with their request, maybe the next five months at the museum will see a different, better path than the one they’re currently on.
1 Check out these two blog posts by Michael Kaiser: “Arts in Crisis” and “Why My Peers are Angry with Me”. Though they’re written about the artworld, I suspect they also have strong relevance in the Field’s current situation. Thanks to Angelique for sharing these posts with me.