The Field Museum in Chicago (FMNH) is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with massive collections of important specimens across multiple disciplines. It also happens to be the largest natural history museum in North America that I’ve never visited. This isn’t by design; fossil whales are one of the few areas in which the Field Museum has limited holdings. Yet this museum has still had a significant impact on my career.
About 6 or 7 years ago, I was helping Nick Fraser describe small gliding reptile from the Solite Quarry, which eventually was named Mecistotrachelos apeoros (above). In order to describe the elongate ribs this animal, we used the closest modern analog, the gliding lizard Draco. As we don’t have any specimens of Draco in the VMNH collections, we borrowed two from the Field Museum.
In 2012 our lab productivity took a jump forward with the hiring of our new preparator, Ray Vodden. Ray received his initial preparator training at the Field Museum, which helped him develop the skills he needed to run the VMNH lab.
There are countless other ways in which FMNH collections and publications have affected my work at VMNH, from terrestrial mammals to Triassic fish. That’s the way research museums work; there’s a lot of collaboration and mutual support. That’s the only way to move science forward.
So it was with some dismay that I heard about the budget problems being faced by the Field Museum. Even worse was the apparent plan to deal with these budget problems by significantly scaling back the research and collections care parts of FMNH’s mission.
I don’t have any particular insight into what’s been happening at FMNH in recent years. It certainly seems that they need to review how they ended up having such serious budgetary problems, and to be fair it sounds like the problems started well before the arrival of the current director. There is not likely to be a simple, pain-free solution available at this point. But I do believe that significantly scaling back research activities is the worst possible path for a museum such as FMNH.
Just over a year ago I posted about different types of museums and the roles they perform. As I wrote at the time:
“It can seem to a visitor that the only reason museums exist is to have exhibits. In the case of a science center such as SMV, this is actually the case; they are an institution that exists to provide science education, primarily through exhibits. But the knowledge that’s imparted in SMV’s exhibits came from somewhere; someone had to collect and interpret the raw data that led to those discoveries. That was done in university and government research facilities…including research museums. Institutions such as VMNH don’t just provide the scientific knowledge described in our own exhibits, but also for the exhibits of science centers that don’t perform research or maintain collections. For VMNH and similar museums, we don’t acquire collections in order to supply the exhibits; rather, the exhibits exist to teach the public about the significance of our collections. “
Part of FMNH’s plan for recovery is to make greater use of the museum’s collections to develop exhibits, rather than renting exhibits from elsewhere. That’s a great plan for all kinds of reasons. But one thing that has to be considered with such a plan is that if you do in-house, collections-based exhibits, someone has to develop those exhibits, and someone has to protect the specimens from the increased wear-and-tear that results from exhibit pressures. If your plan is to use your own collections for exhibits, your curatorial and technical staff become more important, not less. Ironically, exhibits are one of the things that stand to suffer most at FMNH if there are big cuts in the scientific staff.
Again, there are probably no easy solutions here. FMNH’s budget woes are real, and need to be addressed to ensure the long-term stability of the museum. But every effort should be made to minimize adverse effects on the ability of the museum to preserve its collections and conduct research.
There is a petition at Change.org encouraging FMNH’s director, Richard Lariviere, to reconsider this strategy. There have also been several other posts at various blogs about this issue, for example: