Field of Science

Whither goes the Field Museum of Natural History?

The Chi-town Trib greeted us this morning with the news that the FMNH was aiming to reduce its curatorial and research staff, and refocus its mission, to deal with budgetary realities.  Unfortunately it takes quite a curatorial effort to deal with 25 million natural history and cultural specimens, and budgetary problems beset many institutions these days especially here in Lincolnland.  Such big collections must be curated, and used, or they begin to wither away, and this makes you wonder whither goest such an institution?  TPP has responsibility for a relatively small natural history collection, under 100,000 specimens, and it is quite a task.  Thank you, thank you, volunteers and interested students!  Our collection has a simple mission to function in support of teaching; the collection only makes modest contributions to science, although plans are to improve its importance for evaluating conservation efforts locally.  Large collection based research has largely passed out of the research realm at academic institutions because most academic administrators see museums and other collections as "rat holes into which we pour our money" (direct quote of a former president).  Big scale collections research only remains viable at a few museums and botanical gardens, and as a result, this is where floristic and taxonomic studies and other such large scale research must be done.  One wonders what the new director, formerly a university president, has in mind when he says these cuts are a means of narrowing and refocusing the FMNH's mission.  When major collections fall into disuse they begin to get treated as "dusty attics of junk", a foreshadowing of their over all demise.  Collections are of little value if they aren't being used for research and education.  The details have not been forthcoming as yet, but this news is rather ominous and will not be greeted optimistically within the scientific community.  The status and scientific standing of this research institution is in jeopardy and they have a unique role that is not duplicated at academic institutions.  Should you wish to sound off, here's an online petition, but without knowing the details, it strikes TPP as a bit knee-jerk, although the worst is anticipated.  A few years ago Fairchild Tropical Gardens did a similar thing; their trustees decided research was expensive so their botanical staff was "retired".  Fairchild remains a pretty place to visit, but as a prominent botanical garden, it is a shadow of its former self.  Is this the future of the FMNH?    

2 comments:

Justin Tungate said...

Don't they know that new species are often found packed away in the vaults of museum collections? Some species are found decades later and are only known from that one specimen.

The Phytophactor said...

You gots to think like an admin. Where's the money in new species?