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No Future

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The Field Museum of Natural History recently announced that it is cutting its budget by 7%—$5 million from its overall budget of ~$70 million—with $3 million of this coming out of the science departments.The museum has begun a process that would allow it to layoff even tenured researchers. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. A week before, if asked, I would have named the Field as one of a small handful of natural history museums likely to make collections and research a priority no matter what. This week’s guest post is by Chris Norris, president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and Senior Collections Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, who kindly accepted my invitation to speculate about what this portends for the future of museums.
What is it that museums do? I’m sure if you asked fifteen or twenty people from different parts of the profession you’d get fifteen or twenty different answers, or possibly more (since by nature we museum types tend to prevaricate when confronted by a straightforward question). You could say that museums educate, inform, interpret, entertain, enable, research, document, collect, or preserve and all of these things would be true. We’re fortunate enough to work for multi-faceted institutions and this is what drew many of us to a museum career in the first place.
The FMNH Bird Division tissue collection samples from
2,600 of the world’s 9,500 bird species

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a future in which this is not the case. In fact, for many museums, that future is already here. We’re living a new age of austerity, at least in the western world, where we can no longer be all that we want to be. Instead, we’re asked to choose what we have to be, because there’s no money to pay for anything else.

If we’re funded from the public purse, then the tendency is to look outwards for guidance. If money is tight, then we have to justify our existence in terms of the service that we provide to taxpayers. How do we best serve those who pay for us? How do we avoid the accusation that we are milking hard-up citizens to support ivory-tower academic elitism of the worst sort?
If you use this rationale, then it seems obvious that what we should do is pump our limited funds into outreach. We need to make our museums into genuinely public spaces, where we engage with our communities in novel and exciting ways. We need to support an already overstretched public education system, providing a different, but complementary educational experience that extends beyond the classroom to encompass all aspects of life-long learning. We should work to make museums a more open and inviting space by branching out into novel areas – retail, catering, or performing arts. We need to leave the paying public in no doubt of our wider relevance to society as a whole.
Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think we need to look after our collections.
Collections are not very fashionable at the moment. A quick scan through the museum literature suggests that they are more problem than solution; unsustainable, unfocused, imperialistic, and irrelevant. Collections storage facilities are unrepentant energy hogs, whose HVAC units guzzle fuel in pursuit of unsustainable conservation standards. Many of the objects in the collections will never be seen or touched by anyone other than collections staff. There is a strong suspicion that they lack fitness for any purpose, and that some of them may have been removed from their countries of origin in questionable circumstances.
So, all things considered, wouldn’t it be better if we applied a little focus to our collections? Cut back on esoteric curatorial research, disperse “non-core” material through deaccession and disposal, and concentrate more on use than preservation? Maybe. Focus and relevance are good. Access and use are critical. But these are things that, if done properly, will cost more money rather than less. These are all aspects of curation.
Curation is what museums do. Our collections are our unique proposition – the one thing that we have that no other institution possesses. Everything that we do in museums, if done well, flows from collections – education, exhibition, scholarship, and entertainment. They give us a relevance and authenticity that is one of our most valued resources. Our reputation depends to a large extent on the quality of the material that we hold in trust for the public. The ability of the public to access and benefit from these collections, which are their collections, not ours, is dependent on our continuing to invest in collections care.
By now, you may be thinking that this is a rather retrograde post for a blog on the future of museums, but this is an argument about how we see the future of museums and it’s one that we need to have now. Curatorial and collections expertise is a fragile enterprise. It requires significant, long-term investment to build. Museums have beeninvesting in it for decades, through war and peace, boom and bust. No amount of automation, remote access, and crowd-sourcing can replace it. And yet, as we diversify and innovate, and try our best to be all that we can be, it is being placed at risk.
One of the saddest aspects of the first six months of my tenure as President for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections has been the number of letters that I have to write to directors and trustees of museums pleading that they do not cut staff, remove support, or deaccession collections. The responses that I get are articulate and well-argued and depressingly similar; money is tight, we can’t do everything, we have a responsibility to our stakeholders, et cetera.
To which I say, yes, this is an issue of responsibility. Your responsibility is not to plug holes in the public education system, fix your broken communities, or provide your visitors with a better soy latte. Your responsibility, placed on you by the people that pay your wages, is to exercise responsible stewardship of the collections in your care. Nothing trumps this. The most likely future that I see for museums that neglect that duty is that in 50 years time their collections will be unusable for a lack of basic curatorial care. I don’t think that serves the needs of today’s public, and it certainly will not serve the needs of their grandchildren.
I wish I could build the FMNH equivalent of the game Budget Hero, which invites citizens to make their own hard choices to balance the Federal budget, Short of that, I invite you to read about FMNH’s budget strategies and then weigh in below. Faced with the need to trim the budget and grow income, what choices would you make?  
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  1. Great post, sad, but great. Of course the austerity isn't spread evenly, that I could understand, but rather the cuts tend to go disproportionately towards those activities that do not generate quarterly revenue (research and collections). Such is the outcome of increasingly corporate model in museum administration. I would like to know the relative effects of austerity measures at US museums in regards to executive compensation versus the budgets for research and collections?

  2. One of the factors that is often overlooked when talking about museum collections is that there are several reasons why they are becoming more and more difficult to acquire. The argument that "you can just go out and get more" doesn't hold water anymore. Wild lands are diminishing, and those that remain are becoming better and better protected as parks and reserves, many of them with rock-solid regulations against scientific collecting. This is especially true in tropical regions, the heart of biodiversity. We should be building up collections as rapidly as we can in this era, as the source material for such collection continues to diminish.

  3. Excellent article, Chris.

    In response to Herman, while I don't intend to defend the strategy of scaling back research and collections at the museum, frankly, there isn't too much left to cut elsewhere in the institution right now. The abject failure of the FMNH administration and board to properly manage the museum over the last 12 years has left little recourse. When I started looking for other jobs in 2005, housekeeping, security, IT, exhibits, and education had already begun making cuts, while executive level positions (and corresponding salaries) were added. There isn't too much fat left on the old girl.

  4. I agree that this post is profound. But calling for action from directors and boards hasn't worked so far. What can we do on our own? Those of us who see the potential in these collections and the need to care for them want to do something, we just can't seem to figure out what that something should be. I fear that we are each fighting lonely battles and losing them one by one.

  5. Museums are in a serious bind. It's very true, and very scary/sad. I respect the stance on the priority being to care for collections, but there's some confusion here about visitor engagement – described here as meaningless entertainment and pandering. Big difference between that and the real kinds of visitor engagement and study that help museums be understood, valued, and relevant to the societies that fund them (or not). It's time to move beyond this split between curatorial and education-historically siloed and fighting with one another, which does not help the cause-so we can all see the big picture.

  6. Research from curators can provide the focus and relevenace this article calls for. Sadly, it almost seems as though the weak definition of a curator in this sense only encompasses collections care, which is a very small part of what we do. Curation is not what museums do, it is what curators do and I agree our departments are cut, which is shortsighted at best.

  7. Stewardship of the collection is critical, yes. Agreed. But a collection isn't useful if you aren't telling its story. I see that as a critical part of what the museum does, also: collects, cares for, and helps people understand the story. No story, no relevance for the collection, no relevance for the museum. If people don't understand what's important about it, why would they want to pay for it or keep it?

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments and here are a few responses on my part – first, I just wanted to emphasize that I don't think engaging with audiences is meaningless or "pandering," and I completely agree that collections need to be accessible and to have their story told. What I'm arguing for is a collections-centered approach to this engagement. Breaking out of silos will be a key part of that. But without more investment in curatorial care, that's going to be very difficult.

    Which brings me to Nate's comment about the scope of curation. It's true that I've focused on the collections care aspect of curation, and it's also true that curators have a much bigger role to play. But – and I'll be blunt here – my experience over the last 20 years has been that its not just directors and trustees that fail collections; curators do too.

    [when I started writing this comment I had a long list of juicy examples here… but discretion proved the better part of valor]

    To my mind, there is nothing more valuable than a curator with interests that encompass scholarship, collections care, public engagement, life-long learning, social media, and all the rest of the good stuff. But this type of curator – again, in my personal experience – is a rare bird. So I've emphasized collections care, because to my mind this is the key thing that sets a curator apart from, for example, a professor. If you want to be left alone to pursue your own research, there are plenty of excellent positions in universities,,,

  9. I finally got around to finishing reading this post, and boy do I wish I had read that last paragraph sooner. I think this is a sector-wide problem–forgetting that museums are about the keeping and sharing of collections. As museums try to get more funding from more places, they have to redefine themselves over and over for funders, audiences, communities, and they lose track of their true identity. I do feel like we are coming to an era where some organizations that call themselves museums will subsist on programming, with little or no collections (which doesn't mean no objects, one can always hire or borrow objects). It is an awkward thing that we can't just call these types of places some other name.

  10. Posted on behalf of James M. Bryant, Museum Department, City of Riverside:

    Interesting dialogue between Chris and the “commenters.” Some of the commentary, it seems to me, makes it sound like large collections-based natural history museums simply “sprung from the brow of Zeus”, fully formed. Yet most started out modestly, even small. The Field Museum of Natural History is perhaps an exception in that civic leaders simply purchased Ward’s giant exhibition – lock, stock and taxidermy mount. Why? Because they thought it would be a valuable asset for the City, and edifying for the general populace. To the extent that museum collections may have fallen out of this role, there is blame to be shared by all sides of the argument.

    From the perspective of small, community-based natural history programs, the Field’s leadership has been exceedingly generous with its collections divisions (e.g. their massive, fairly new, off-site storage facility). Many smaller organizations would love to have a fraction of that money spent on the disposition of their collections. And recent efforts in place-based biodiversity research and citizen science have shown that quite a lot of valuable data lies out in the hinterlands of the collections world. Conversely, many of the collections most important to my community lie in the hands of very large museums where no one on the staff has studied, or even looked at them, for many, many years. And Riverside is located in an officially designated “biodiversity hot spot”.

    As egregious as retrenchment can be, this can also be a learning experience for all concerned. Did “The Field” cease to be a “Museum of Natural History” because the public lost interest in nature, or collections? I doubt it. Have the collections and research teams at our large natural history museums been consistently committed to cultivating the interest of that public? To widely varying degrees, I’m afraid.

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