Cuts at the Field Museum could 'diminish' its international reputation

December 19, 2012

Updated: 5 p.m.

Chicago’s Field Museum is proposing a significant reduction in its re-operating budget, citing a hefty debt load. That could mean higher prices for patrons.

The museum hopes to reduce costs by $5 million and organize its scientific research wing, from academic departments like anthropology and zoology to more generic fields of study such as "museum exhibitions."

Field President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Lariviere said the museum is feeling the effects of the recession just like any other business or institution. He said administrators will talk with scientists and curators about how to balance the budget.

"The Field Museum is in really reasonably good shape," he said. "What we're trying to do is protect the future of this place by right-sizing ourselves at this moment to balance our budget, get things under control, so that we can ensure that the future includes the same kind of high quality, world-shaping research and discovery that it has in the past."

Lariviere said the museum's current structure is a "vestige" of university organization dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. For instance, the department of geology contains paleontologists, but no geologists.

"It's really not a rational structure," he said. "It certainly doesn't reflect the interdisciplinary nature and the creativity of the science that goes on here."

He said that makes it harder to explain to the public about the science and research going on behind the scenes.

More than 1 million people visit the museum every year, to see blockbuster shows and the Field's prized possession, a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue. But the Field's global reputation comes from its cutting-edge scientific research and conservation effects.

"Behind the scenes, there is essentially a non-degree granting university that has scientists of all different stripes who travel around the world and make collections and study species and cultures and artifacts," said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the former provost of the Field.

Shubin says the budget cuts and proposed reorganization mean staff cuts. And those will diminish the museum’s reputation.

"Anytime you see a reorganization like this, it means large staff reductions. I see no way that they can continue the breadth of the research profile that has been one of their, you know, one of the legs of their eminence," Shubin said.

The Field says it will develop a new operating plan over the next six months.

An earlier version of this story referred to Sue as a "life-sized model" of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. But Sue's the real deal!