Monstrous staff cuts at Field Museum

By SpencerRoush

For more than 30 years Dave Willard has spearheaded an arguably morbid research project: Collecting birds that fall to their untimely death after flying full force into McCormick Place’s clear glass structure.

At first glance this seemed like strange behavior or an odd collection to keep, but that wasn’t the case.

Collecting these birds has allowed Willard and fellow Field Museum of Natural History researcher Doug Stotz to discover volumes of information concerning birds’ migratory patterns in the region. Their discoveries have made headlines and aided researchers in various scientific endeavors.

However, Willard’s work with this ongoing project is coming to a close. He is being quietly moved out of the Field, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, after years of research. The museum has offered him early retirement to help balance the economic woes facing the institution.

Willard isn’t the only one leaving unexpectedly. The Field’s finances continue to languish in the hole the recession put it in. It’s putting a strain on top administrators to make significant cuts to departments and slash program components, among others.

In total, 46 staff members have recently been offered buy-out incentives and early retirement. Much of the staff who were offered buyouts have already left the museum, but others who were offered early retirement, like Willard, are counting down until Dec. 23—their final day.

This isn’t the first staff trimming in recent times. Eighty-eight employees have left the Field   since 2007, before to the most recent series of staff cuts.

One staff member, who asked to remain anonymous because of possible repercussions, said in 25 years he experienced four financial dips in the institution and each time it recovered, but this is “far and away the most extensive belt tightening” he’s witnessed.

“The first 10 years I worked here you would’ve had to shoot someone to get laid off,” he said.

The Field’s President and CEO John W. McCarter Jr. announced the changes in September marking the museum’s first year of its five-year financial recovery process, including eliminating the 46 staff positions and closing the museum’s 100-year-old Harris Educational Loan Center, which acts as a lending library of museum materials for teachers and home school classrooms, until fall 2012. These are only two of the other cost saving initiatives.

“Sadly, charities are having to make some tough choices, particularly in the arts,” said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, an online service that evaluates charities and their financial stability. “What we see historically is funding switches from arts groups and people tend to give more to, for example, human service charities, like food banks, homeless services.”

Miniutti also said most museums have noticed plummeting grants and contributions, which are an essential source of revenue, in the 2009 fiscal year.

Right now, it’s hard to tell where the Field currently stands on donations because its 990 Form for 2009 isn’t available yet.

According to the 990 Form for 2008, which the U.S. Internal Revenue Service requires of non-profit institutions such as The Field, grant money and contributions drew more revenue during the recession, but the museum’s investments took a hit, losing roughly $1.84 million in value. Just a year prior, investments reportedly earned nearly $21.1 million in profit.

Competing institutions on Chicago’s Museum Campus faced similar investment losses and staff cuts. But the museum source said the other institutions made better decisions to escape their financial slump, which the Field has failed to emulate.

He explained that the staff cuts are detrimental to the museum because the “sciences, academic staff and the building’s collections run this place and give [it] credibility.”

Nancy O’Shea, spokeswoman for the Field, replied in an e-mail that the museum departments impacted by the cuts would “reorganize and prioritize” to assure the museum’s work continues.

The museum source disagreed, and, speaking meta-phorically said the Field “should be buying hamburgers, but the museum has continued to buy T-bones,” referring to particular blockbuster exhibit choices the administration brought in to boost foot traffic in the museum. He said with more consideration of exhibit choices, perhaps some of the vital researchers and collections managers could have continued their work.

Some of these controversial choices include the 2006 Chicago tour of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” which cost an undisclosed amount. But museum sources said it came with a hefty price tag. “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years—Selections from the Kennedy Library and Museum,” was an ’02 blockbuster exhibit, which cost the museum a reported $1 million fee. As for their performance at the turnstiles, the Field never officially released figures on how much either exhibit made. However, O’Shea said the blockbuster exhibits “did not lead to any financial difficulty.”

Exhibits were also scrutinized because some showings didn’t seem to fit neatly under the museum’s “natural history” theme, such as Jackie O’s dress display or “The Art of the Motorcycle” ’98–’99 exhibit. This stretching of mission is something Stephen Asma, author of “Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums,” said is typical among natural history museums to boost admissions.

Asma, who is also a Columbia Humanities, History and Social Science professor, said research showed bringing odd exhibits to intrigue different demographics into the museum doesn’t have the effect institutions look for. He explained that normally when someone isn’t a museum–goer he or she only walks through that particular exhibit of interest and leaves without going

through the rest of the displays.

The idea is getting people to meander through all of the displays and spend money at the gift

shop and restaurants, but Asma said he’s found this tactic doesn’t have that result.

Other than the traveling exhibits being expensive and seemingly out of place at the natural history museum, multiple sources said admission numbers are also low because of boring exhibits, citing environmental conservation displays and the ’02–’03 “Pearl” exhibit as examples.

“[Conservation exhibits are] dry and it’s not necessarily something people wanted to be reminded of—to be reminded of how many years we’ve got left on this planet,” a source said. “Gee, what fun.”

When O’Shea was asked about the exhibits’ shortfalls, she responded by saying the “recent temporary exhibitions, such as ‘Real Pirates,’ ‘Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,’ ‘The Nature of Diamonds’ and our current exhibition, ‘Gold,’ all performed well. They have piqued the public’s interest and helped drive attendance to the museum … The decline in paid attendance is directly linked to the current economy.”

O’Shea also said permanent exhibits like “Sue,” “The Lions of Tsavo” and “Inside Ancient Egypt,” bring in patrons.

Whatever the reasons are for admission revenues being down, the Field is working to curb fund deficiencies and rumors about the staff cuts and Harris Loan Center are running rampant because of it.

Harris Educational Loan Center

The Harris Educational Loan Center is 100 years old, and possesses the largest collection of dioramas that are lent out of any museum. So the fact that it’s closing its doors until fall 2012 has created quite a stir among Field staff.

Banker Norman Wait Harris gave the Field an endowment of $250,000 in 1911. According to the endowment stipulations the money was to accumulate interest and continue giving children a chance to enjoy and learn from the Field’s artifacts in their own classroom.

Daniel Brinkmeier, former manager of the Harris from ’96-’98, who now works as a Field Museum Associate in Anthropology and Zoology, said Harris is a “treasure” and the dioramas “are artifacts in themselves,” and they serve as art.

Brinkmeier said in his opinion, perhaps some of the higher-ups, making decisions concerning Harris, aren’t fully aware of its impact on children and schools because it serves underprivileged neighborhoods that can’t afford museum admission.

This is not the only time Harris has been mentioned as a possible place to trim costs, but this is the first time it’s come to fruition.

An e-mail was sent on Dec. 3 notifying Harris users it would no longer issue exhibit dioramas or experiences boxes, which are compilations of audio visual and other themed- supplemental material to teachers and other users. The notice said the museum needed time to “renovate, refurbish and reimagine the objects currently available for loan.”

Most staff would agree the dioramas have experienced wear and tear throughout the years and some need updating and refurbishing. However, some staff members didn’t think the Harris’ doors needed to be closed to do so, unless Field administrators were being tricky with the intention of never reopening—or that was the rumor anyway.

Beth Crownover, Director of Education at the Field, said they have every intention of reopening after reevaluating the center’s contents and discussed how the materials could best be utilized.

The employee running Harris was let go, which is a main reason why some staff members are questioning the sincerity of the museum’s vow to reopen it because they wonder who will be renovating Harris. Crownover said a different in-house team will take care of the project.

The museum source said the center is probably being closed down because it’s just considered an extra expense with its operational costs. In theory, the original endowment should accumulate enough interest to sustain itself for the most part. There is also a $60 or less—depending on the borrower—annual fee for Harris materials.

This leaves some staff members wondering if the endowment’s principal was spent or if it’s being funneled to fund other initiatives. One of the rumors is that the museum’s online educational video games are getting the Harris money.

O’Shea and Crownover denounced the validity of such rumors, saying that yes, the endowment is still functioning as normal, and the Harris family’s donation is being used according to the endowment’s stipulations.

Crownover said the video games are “absolutely not” being funded through the Harris endowment and Harris is being closed down to figure out how to raise more interest in the program and get more people interested in checking out the dioramas in addition to refurbishing materials.

Mark Kennedy, an exhibit designer at the Field who tweaks broken pieces in dioramas, said the problem with the program’s popularity is probably the lack of marketing. He said the fact that it is self propelled through word-of-mouth this long is an amazing success.

Kennedy said he is fond of the dioramas and that he’s had 80-year-old people come up to him and say “I used to look at those cases when I was a kid.”

The exhibit designer also said some boxes are particularly important because of the records they keep. An example is a diorama featuring frog molds that were intricately hand-painted with realistic coloring in the ‘20s and it’s the only record the Field has of their actual appearance. This is because the cataloged frog specimens lost their coloring after floating in alcohol since that time.

Brinkmeier said no one can deny Harris’ importance in the community and the history it contains, but the museum is financially struggling and he’s sure there will still be a place for the program at the museum.

Other museum employees are still skeptical of Harris’ return, even with the Fall 2012 reopening date scheduled.

“It’s difficult to distinguish what’s honest and what’s just being said,” the museum source said concerning Harris’ status and the rest of the museums, cost-saving measures.

The source said departing employees love the museum as well as the Harris program and they were only thinking of their department’s future when they chose the buyout or early retirement options.

“I love this place,” he said. “I’ve held artifacts no one else has.”

As for the staff that is still employed, he said they’re happy to pick up the slack, but the struggle to reach financial stability “isn’t over by a long shot.”