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.
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 change.org petition to oppose this:
and you can contact the management through info here (Dr. Lariviere’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org ; 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