The Field Museum Cuts Basic Research

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Karl Akeley's famous "Fighting African Elephants" being put on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, ~1905.


The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is one of the country's oldest, largest, and most respected institutions of its kind. It has played a leading role in the global effort to collect, study, and exhibit remnants of our world's biodiversity for over a century, but it looks as though this legacy may be nearing its end. According to articles in Nature and the Chicago Tribune, the museum's administration recently announced that it would cut spending on basic research by $3 million to help meet its goal of reducing the overall budget by some $5 million next year. Among other things, this decision will almost certainly require breaking tenure to lay off curators.

Last Tuesday, the museum's new president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, announced that all of its academic departments--Geology, Zoology, Anthropology, and Botany--would be eliminated as part of an effort to streamline its organizational structure. As of January the 1st, they will be replaced by a single department for Science and Education.

There are a few reasons I have decided to write about this development, which is extremely unsettling to say the least. One of them is that I have many fond memories of visiting the museum over the years (my father works there as a curator), and I share the sadness and frustration that many have voiced in the wake of this news. Whereas Lariviere reportedly told the Tribune that "if we wrestle these issues to the ground successfully, our future is rosy," others have been less sanguine in their views. James Hanken, the Director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zooology, for example, told Nature that "There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances."

So I urge readers who agree that cutting basic research is a shortsighted move to sign this online petition urging Lariviere and other museum administrators to rethink their fiscal strategy.



But there's a second, somewhat less personal reason I wanted to write about these developments. As a historian of science, I have spent quite a lot of time wondering why American civic natural history museums have a research mission in the first place. The best answer that I have come up with centers on the fact that these institutions required the financial support of wealthy philanthropists to get started during the late 19th century. (The Field Museum, which is named after Marshall Field, a department store magnate who contributed a million dollars to its founding during the 1890s, is a case in point.) Entrepreneurs, financiers, and industrialists had many reasons to support the creation of a museum (or a park, concert hall, library, etc.), but one of the most interesting is that doing so helped to legitimize their wealth, power, and social standing. Adopting some terminology from the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, we might say that investing in the collection of natural history specimens was one way to convert economic wealth into cultural capital.

Inscription above the Field Museum's main entrance.

Since most of these institutions were founded at a time of considerable labor unrest, their underwriters were keen to attract a large and diverse audience that included working class families. To do that, the exhibits had to be exciting and visually stimulating. But they were also supposed to instill bourgeois values and help legitimize a particularly ruthless and competitive mode of production, one which gave rise to increased social inequality. The decision to begin hiring curators and investing in basic research was, thus, among other things, an attempt to lend credibility and authority to popularizations of a particularly self-serving vision of the natural world.

Here, I have been deliberate in my attempts to put the argument in its starkest, most Marxian terms. In actual fact, the modern, civic museum--institutions that combine scientific research with popular entertainment and public instruction--are far more than a public relations campaign for the capitalist mode of production. For example, their creation during the Gilded Age was not just the activity of one social group. Rather, it required forging an alliance between private capital, municipal government, practicing naturalists, and a willing (though not yet paying) public. So I'd just like to signal that there is a lot here that's been left unsaid.

Still, I do basically subscribe to the kind of narrative I've tried to outline above. At the same time, now that the Field Museum's research mission is under serious threat, I feel an immense sadness, grief, and sense of loss. Why should this be so? If creating a research mission was just a way to make museums a better shill for capitalism, why would removing it be such a bad thing?

The answer obviously has a lot to do with all those other dimensions of the history that I've left out. But rather than actually start sketching out such an answer (a task that would require its own post), let me just close by reflecting on the question itself.

Events such as those with which I've started this post are useful reminders to us as practicing historians in that they provide some perspective on our work. We often talk about the need to gain a sense of critical distance from our subject matter. I think that's certainly true. But we should not forget that sometimes we also need exactly the opposite. Too much critical distance turns history into a mere parlor game. But when we are threatened with the tangible loss of something we love (or the creation of something that we abhor), its history takes on a fuller, richer, and more important meaning.

I do not want to give the impression that I advocate giving up on critique. As an historian, I am fundamentally committed to the critical enterprise. But I do want to suggest that critique for its own sake is not just shallow but potentially dangerous.  If it is not directed at a tangible goal, it can lull us into the false sense that we can do what is right without getting our hands dirty.

4 comments

Lukas: thanks for drawing our attention in this direction. I've signed the petition.

For me, the loss of the research side of the museum and the idea of creating a "Science and Education" department in its place points toward an unhelpful turn in museum practice---one that narrows the ways that museums can showcase and promote the life of the mind.

I *love* children's museums and interactive science museums---I should say that first. Finding new ways to interpret and explain science matters a great deal. But I worry when the move toward experiential, conceptual learning hides or even displaces the disciplined activity that creates scientific knowledge and makes museums possible in the first place. Having research divisions in science museums matters, in other words, because some of the public deserves to have the opportunity to see science at work.

Your recent Isis piece, Lukas, on dinosaurs at the AMNH convinces me that researchers and curators add a great deal to museum life and that their museum work has important effects on their science. When museums no longer have scientists to create "mixed media" assemblages, we'll all be the poorer for it.

I agree with Dan's point about "science at work." Natural history (and other science) museums display *both* the products of scientific inquiry (in the form of curated objects from the natural world, say) and its processes, the why and how not just of how those objects were curated, but what they mean for scientific knowledge.

Interestingly, the "behind-the-scenes" work of art museums is dedicated to preservation, curation, and research in much the same way. The twist is that, while natural history museums entail "science at work," it's less often the case (at least in any common-sense way) that art museums entail "art at work."

Lukas, I know you're interested in this comparison. Does that sound right?

Lukas, this is a very meaningful summary of 2 centuries of American natural history. You mentioned Marshall Field, but Smithson, Peabody, Bishop, and Carnegie were other examples of this trend. Beyond the incomparable loss of the engine that created the Field Museum's collections and served and instructed scientists and the public, I am afraid these cuts to science signal a troubling sociological development: the 1% (who created these cultural icons in the 18th and 19th centuries) no longer feel the need to legitimize their wealth. Cultural institutions like the Field Museum now rely on attenuating lines of support from an aging generation of socially responsible philanthropists

I agree with you, Lukas: sometimes one can be too distant. Many of us carry that same ambivalence about science you expressed. I came to history of science in an era of critique, and see the critical stance as something that helps keep science honest. But I also love nature--and therefore the sciences that study it--and we live in a different age now. Science needs defending in a way it didn't seem to in the late 1970s and early 1980s (except for evolution). Evolution and climate change are only the most famous twin objects of current attack; environmental protection and technology assessment are two other areas where federal and state governments have either reduced their levels of scientific expertise or not allowed them to speak as experts.

Museum science has a special place in my heart, and in my research program. As a non-Americanist primarily, my perspective is somewhat different than yours, since many of the museums I've worked on existed before the boom in mass museum education of the late 19thC. It has always seemed to me that the splitting up of the research collection from the public collection, which made such eminent sense to so many European curators in the 1860s-1880s and thereafter, was in fact something of a Faustian bargain. Research could now (in the new museums of the late 19thC) take place away from the distractions of the lay visitor, and the public collections found a new mission in educating the mass public. But the cost of this privacy--so necessary for curators to get their scientific work done--was invisibility. I fear that what we're seeing now at the Field Museum is in part an unexpected consequence of that choice.

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